Lesley Stahl Asks Pollster Dotty Lynch: How Much Can a Controversial VP Pick Hurt a Candidate?

Here’s another of my regular conversations with Dotty Lynch, former pollster, former CBS News election editor and now professor at American University.

LESLEY: Hi Dotty. Thanks for joining us on Day 3 — or is it Day 2? — of the Republican Convention. Let’s plunge in: How much can a controversial vice-presidential pick hurt a candidate?

DOTTY: Thinking back to 1972, the Tom Eagleton pick was disastrous for George McGovern. He first backed him, then dumped him, and chose Sarge Shriver and never really recovered. On the other hand, Dan Quayle was thought to be a bad pick but the attacks on him didn’t kill the Bush campaign and they successfully turned the attacks on him to attacks on the media. But when the VP becomes a bigger story than the nominee it usually isn’t a plus.

I remember how the Bush 41 campaign banished Dan Quayle to tiny cities where there was no media coverage, hoping the public would forget he existed! But isn’t there some cardinal rule in picking a veep candidate — that he or she “do no harm”? Give us your read on how Sarah Palin helps and hurts McCain with various constituencies, like Hillary voters, Catholics and Independents.

DOTTY: Clearly John McCain didn’t feel that way. He decided to roll the dice — no guts no glory, huh? The polling evidence so far is very preliminary, but The New York Times poll found that she helped more with men than with women. And I assume she will energize conservatives and not have a lot of appeal to the liberal women who supported Hillary. So far it’s not clear how she will play with Catholics or Independents.

LESLEY: Obama got a little bit of a bounce out of his convention. What was it? Six points? Then along came Sarah to overshadow everything. Any signs yet of how the Palin choice is playing in the key states?

DOTTY: Not anything new from the key states. We political junkies tend to forget that there was a holiday weekend between Palin’s selection and today. Pollsters know that is a terrible time to get people to respond to polls. Between Labor Day, back to school and Gustav, voters have been preoccupied. That is probably why the McCain folks divulged the information about her daughter on Monday. Polls won’t settle down for another few days at the earliest.

Then let me ask for your seasoned judgment on the issue of Gov. Palin taking the job with the five kids and the baby with special needs. Call it the Juggling Issue. Will that be a factor – with women?

Studies have shown that voters — especially older female voters — want women candidates to explain how they can handle both. Fair or unfair, I think Palin will have to address this and convince them that she can handle both jobs. She seems to have convinced Alaskans that she can do both, often bringing her baby to the office.

Obama responded to the surprising news that Bristol Palin is pregnant with sensitivity and political savvy, saying: We won’t go there. And yet just this morning I heard Republicans slamming the Obama campaign for “using” this as an issue. The Democrats are in a delicate position on this — no matter what they say or don’t say! — the Republicans will attack them for sexism, exploitation. Is there a “clean” way for the Obama campaign to take advantage of what  even some a conservative columnists are saying is an “insulting” choice?

DOTTY: Let the media carry it — which is basically what they have decided to do. And question John McCain’s “decision-making process,” implying that he shoots from the hip, makes impulsive choices, etc. I think both of those are the most effective techniques. But a lot of Republicans equate the “liberal media” with the Democrats and the Obama campaign so if The New York Times has articles on the front page, the Republicans label that as the Obama campaign’s mouthpiece.

LESLEY: I checked out the op-ed and editorial columns this morning in The New York Times. Just about all the writers criticize the choice as impulsive, insulting, etc. The Washington Post, the same. There George Will harps on Palin’s inexperience. And then there’s The Wall Street Journal whose lead editorial attacks the media! Does the “attack-the-press” tactic work? Think Nixon! And Reagan.

Also: discuss the rock-and-a-hard-place the Dems are in going after “a woman.” If they press too hard, will the Hillary voters cry “sexism” again?

DOTTY: The irony is that the Hillary supporters I have talked to are the most critical of Palin. They don’t like her position on abortion and other social issues and they don’t like her lack of experience. That was one of their objections to Obama. I think attack-the-press is incredibly effective with the conservative base which has been slow to accept McCain. I find it fascinating to hear these conservative Republican men like Newt Gingrich and Pat Buchanan complaining about sexism and touting Palin’s superior credentials. The establishment is appalled, but the conservatives have found a reason to support the ticket.

What do you think about Bristol’s pregnancy as an issue? Obama said it shouldn’t be … but it’s what “everyone” is talking about. My daughter called to talk about Gov. Palin’s stand on sex education in the schools. It has the ring of “Family Values” – one of the rallying cries of the Religious Right.

DOTTY: I agree. When candidates “use” their families to show how wonderful they are, they risk making family members an issue. I think most reporters are sensitive to not hurting underage children, but in the rush to find out what a new candidate like Palin is all about, how she blends her public and private lives is a legitimate topic. And of course sex is ALWAYS titillating, as is potential hypocrisy. The decision to have both Bristol and her boyfriend at the convention tonight to “de-fang” them legitimizes the story even more I think — but causes concern about how this will affect these two young people.

LESLEY: Excellent point! One final question: There are all kinds rumors floating around – that despite John McCain’s insistence that he knew all about Bristol’s pregnancy, that in fact he didn’t. That she failed to tell him or his vetters. And that, therefore, Sarah Palin may withdraw, saying something about how her family needs her, how she’s come to realize this is too much to take on. Have you picked up any of this? Do you think this is a possibility?

Yes, I think there might be some truth in that, though I don’t have it nailed down. What I heard from a few sources was that McCain really wanted Joe Lieberman but that Charlie Black and Karl Rove convinced him that the convention would blow up if he picked a pro-choice VP. So many in his campaign advocated a safe choice — Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty — and basically told Pawlenty to leave Denver where he was a GOP surrogate, go back to Minnesota and clear his schedule for last Thursday and Friday and wait by the phone for “the call.” The phone never rang until Friday morning when he was told it was not going to happen.

So it seems only a tiny group of people inside the McCain campaign knew about this choice and many others felt burned and now are very concerned about the impact. But I don’t know if McCain shares this view or is still getting a kick out of shaking up the race.

LESLEY: Thanks Dotty. Wonderful, as always.

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