Time Out of the Spotlight Hasn't Helped Sarah Palin

When Sarah Palin resigned as governor of Alaska last summer, it seemed she was finally taking the advice of many political professionals and retreating from the spotlight to rebuild her brand and find her message. With the exception of a closed-to-the-press speech last month in Hong Kong, she has not been seen in public. Palin has turned down interviews and declined to appear at GOP party events. Aside from the occasional op-ed, like this one published last week by National Review, and messages posted on her Facebook page, Palin has been laying low, no doubt preparing for what will unquestionably be a major publicity push when her autobiography, Going Rogue, is released next month. But has her time away from the cameras actually done Palin any good politically?

Two polls released in the last several days suggest Palin might not be in good shape should she seek the GOP presidential nomination in 2012. A new Gallup poll finds that Palin's approval ratings have taken a serious hit in recent months. According to Gallup, Palin's favorability rating is currently at 40 percent—the lowest number she's had since John McCain named her to be his vice presidential running mate in August 2008. After her nomination speech at the Republican National Convention, Palin had a 53 percent approval rating. By the end of the campaign, after a messy back and forth between Palin allies and McCain staff over Palin's "rogue" behavior, the then-governor had a 42 percent approval rating, and she still hasn't recovered. While she continues to do well among Republicans—69 percent like her, according to Gallup—Palin's biggest problem continues to be her ability to woo independent voters. According to Gallup, only 41 percent of independents have a favorable view of Palin, while 48 percent don't. Those numbers were opposite when she joined the McCain ticket a year ago.

While Palin's strength has always been her appeal to the GOP base, a second poll raises questions about whether Republicans will actually vote for her. A Rasmussen Reports survey of likely GOP voters finds only 18 percent think she should be the Republican presidential nominee in 2012. She trails Mike Huckabee, who led the poll with 29 percent, and Mitt Romney, who came in second with 18 percent. In July, Palin finished second to Romney in the same poll. The most troubling number for Palin: asked which candidate they'd "least" like to see get the nomination, Palin finished second with 21 percent. (Gov. Tim Pawlenty finished first in that poll, with 28 percent of voters saying they don't want to see him receive the nomination.) When matched up one on one with Huckabee and Romney, Palin is a distant second to both. Huckabee leads Palin 55 percent to 35 percent among likely GOP voters, while Romney beats Palin 52 percent to 37 percent.

It's probably no coincidence that Palin's decline within her own party has come in the months after she quit the governor's office. As Rasmussen notes, 40 percent of Republican voters thought her decision to leave office hurt her chances in 2012. Clearly, the party faithful, who desperately want to win in 2012, don't think it's quite enough for Palin to weigh in on national matters by offering her thoughts on Facebook. But the unanswered question is what exactly do they want from Palin, and what does she want to be? In 2008, Palin energized her party base by serving as the GOP attack dog on Obama. She's tried to corner that market again with provocative Facebook essays and op-eds, raising questions about the Democrats' health-care-reform push. But that hasn't helped her appeal to swing voters—whom polls show are just as wary about some of the reform proposals as Republicans—and she's lost ground to Huckabee and Romney within the GOP.

As her book release nears and she presumably reenters the spotlight, the big unknown is whether Palin can change what the public already thinks about her and regain ground. You can't doubt her as a major political force. As Chris Cillizza notes this morning, she's topped 930,000 followers on Facebook—more than any other potential GOP candidate. In the age of Obama, that's not something you can discount. The dilemma for Palin is how she can transform that into something more meaningful than people posting comments to her latest Facebook essay. To have a chance in 2012, Palin needs people to take her seriously. Stepping back from the fray a bit can help, but in the end, it's ultimately about message. Why would she be the best GOP candidate in 2012? How would she be a better alternative to Obama? That's clarity she'll need to offer.