Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

Post-Debate: Palin Still Seen as Unqualified, a Bump for Biden

Continued Doubts About Financial Bailout


While last week’s vice-presidential debate had a larger audience than any other in history, voters’ impressions of Sarah Palin have changed little. A special re-interview this weekend of voters who had been first polled a week ago found that most (55%) continue to have a favorable view of Palin, but most (52%) also still believe that she is not qualified to serve as president, if it becomes necessary.

In contrast, voters’ opinions of Joe Biden have improved since the previous Pew survey conducted Sept. 27-29. Biden’s favorability rating among registered voters recontacted over the weekend climbed from 54% to 63%, and the percentage believing he is qualified to serve as president jumped to 77% from 69% a week earlier.

Both candidates get high marks for their debate performances, though Biden receives substantially better marks overall. Roughly eight-in-ten voters (81%) who watched the vice-presidential debate rate Biden’s performance as excellent or good, compared with 65% offering positive ratings for Palin. Biden receives higher marks for his debate performance than Barack Obama did in the first presidential debate (72% excellent/good). Palin, too, is viewed as doing a better job than did John McCain (65% vs. 59% excellent/good).

The latest survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press was conducted on landline phones and cell phones Oct. 3-5 among 820 adults, including 710 registered voters, who were previously interviewed. It finds that congressional passage of the massive financial rescue bill did not increase public support for the plan.

Overall, people who were re-interviewed over the weekend are even more divided as to whether this is the right thing or the wrong thing for the government to be doing (42% right thing vs. 39% wrong thing). In the Sept. 27-29 survey, 45% said it was right for the government invest billions of dollars to try to secure financial markets and institutions, while 38% said it was the wrong thing.

Republicans More Positive about Biden

Overall, 8% of voters nationwide changed their view of Joe Biden from unfavorable to favorable over the past week. Biden changed the minds of a number of Republicans and independents. Among Republicans interviewed both before and after the debates, 14% changed their view of Biden from unfavorable to favorable, as did 12% of independents. By comparison, Biden had little room to gain among Democrats, 81% of whom already viewed him favorably before the debates.

Biden’s image also improved over the past week among lower-income voters. Among those with household incomes under $30,000 annually, 16% changed their opinion of Biden from unfavorable to favorable, compared with just 6% of those in higher income categories.

Overall, 5% of voters changed their opinion of Sarah Palin from unfavorable to favorable over the past week. Palin did not substantially improve her image in any subgroups of voters.

Many Words Used to Describe Palin

Among those who watched the debate, the word “knowledgeable” was used most often to describe Biden’s debate performance. “Experienced” and “competent” were also frequently used words. Less positive words used to describe Biden included “politician” and “old.”

Debate viewers used a somewhat different set of words to describe their impression of Palin. “Confident” was the most commonly used word followed by “honest” and “good.” The fourth and fifth most common responses to Palin’s debate performance were “inexperienced” and “unqualified.”

In general, debate viewers used a wider variety of words to describe Palin, though in many cases no more than three or four respondents mentioned the same word. In Biden’s case, more people used the same word, such as the 53 who said “knowledgeable.”

Debate’s Modest Impact

There is little evidence that the events of the past week have changed minds of many voters about the presidential election. Just 4% of those questioned moved from saying there was a chance they might back McCain to saying they definitely would not – largely offset by 2% who moved from definite opposition to maybe giving him consideration. A similar mixed change in opinions about voting for Obama was evident in the panel back survey.

Partisan Division on the Bailout

The poll finds that public reaction to the $700 billion economic bailout package signed into law last week is decidedly mixed, with a narrow plurality of 42% saying it was the right thing to do and 39% saying it was the wrong thing to do; 19% are unsure. The overall division in public opinion was similar prior to the measure’s passage (45% right thing to do, 38% wrong thing in interviews conducted Sept. 27-29).

However, the relative stability in the overall numbers obscures considerable movement in public opinion about the package. The survey finds that many people changed their minds as the debate unfolded in Washington, with nearly four-in-ten (37%) holding a different opinion in the re-interview survey than they had when interviewed a week ago.

In particular, Democrats and Republicans moved in opposite directions. In the Sept. 27-29 survey, members of both parties held similar views, with small pluralities favoring the plan (49% among Republicans, 46% among Democrats). Independents were almost evenly divided, with 42% saying the plan was the right thing to do and 40% saying it was the wrong approach.

Now, Republicans are significantly more negative about the

package; 45% now say it is the wrong thing to do, up from 38% a week ago. Independents have moved in the same direction and now oppose the plan by a margin of 47% to 36%. Meanwhile, 48% of Democrats now say the bailout is the right thing to do.

Echoing the divided public verdict on the bailout, 45% are pessimistic that the plan will keep financial markets secure; 42% say they are optimistic. A majority of independents (54%) say they are pessimistic about whether the bailout will work. Republicans (49% optimistic) and Democrats (47%) are more optimistic.

Public judgments about how Congress has handled the situation are now more negative than they were in late

September. A plurality of 39% says Congress was too hasty, up from just 22% who said this earlier. About a quarter (23%) thinks Congress took too much time debating, while 29% say lawmakers gave the issue about the right amount of consideration. Independents, in particular, are more likely to say Congress acted too fast: 46% now say this, up from 25% a week ago.

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