Sarah Palin Boom Busts: Poll Casts Doubt on Experience Prior to Vice Presidential Debate

Skepticism about Sarah Palin has soared since she entered the national political stage, with six in 10 Americans now doubting her qualifications for office and fewer than half convinced of her grasp of complex issues.

In advance of her debate against Joe Biden on Thursday, Palin now looks more like a drag than a boost to the GOP ticket: Thirty-two percent of registered voters say her selection makes them less likely to support John McCain for president, up from 19 percent last month.

Click here for a PDF with charts and full questionnaire.

Her basic ratings are weaker still.

Just 35 percent say Palin has the experience it takes to serve effectively as president, down a dozen points since early September; 60 percent think not, up 15. And just 46 percent think Palin "understands complex issues," while 49 percent think she doesn't -- a poor assessment on this most basic qualification.

Biden's ratings starkly contrast Palin's: Seventy-five percent say he understands complex issues, 70 percent say he has suitable experience to take over as president if necessary and just 13 percent say his selection makes them less apt to support Barack Obama.

In the most fundamental measure of a public figure's popularity, 51 percent now express an overall favorable opinion of Palin, down from 58 percent Sept. 7, just after the GOP convention.

While she's lost 7 points on this score, Biden's moved the other way, gaining 6 points -- 57 percent see him favorably, up from 51 percent.

VP Debate Marks Opportunity for Palin

Thursday's debate marks an opportunity for Palin to address these concerns, but also carries the risk of cementing them in the public's mind.

The hazard she faces is that it's generally easier to confirm preconceptions than to change them.

Palin does have one better rating, for her common touch: Fifty-eight percent of registered voters think she understands the problems of people like them. But as many, 57 percent, say the same of Biden.

Sarah Palin Boom Fades as Enthusiasm Wanes

In conjunction with the Republican convention overall, Palin's addition to the ticket seemed to help energize McCain's base -- enthusiasm among his supporters rose -- and to improve his position among white women, a changeable group all year but one that shifted in McCain's favor in early September.

Some of that's clearly ebbed.

White women by a 13-point margin initially said Palin's addition made them more likely rather than less likely to support the GOP ticket. That's subsided to a single point.

Among independents, Palin's presence on the ticket has gone from a 10-point net positive to an 11-point net negative.

And her reception has turned negative among another key swing group, white Catholics; they're now 19 points more apt to say Palin pushes them away from McCain than toward him.

Similarly, just 40 percent of white women now say Palin has the experience it takes to serve effectively as president, down 12 points; 56 percent think not. It's lower still among independents, 32 percent, down 17 points.

And among white Catholics the sense that Palin is qualified has plummeted from 54 percent early last month to 27 percent now. It's dropped nearly as far among non-evangelical white Protestants as well.

There are related trends in favorability; favorable views of Palin have dropped, for instance, by 20 points among white Catholics (from 69 to 49 percent), by 15 points among Midwesterners (who gave her a particularly favorable initial reception) and by 18 points among non-evangelical white Protestants.

Partisanship Drives Palin Perception

There is strong partisanship in these views.

Sixty-seven percent of Republicans say Palin's experienced enough, compared with barely over one in 10 Democrats, and, as noted, a third of independents.

Eighty-four percent of Republicans view her favorably, and 75 percent think she understands complex issues. Conservatives and white evangelicals, both core Republican groups, also remain by her side.

The public's sense of Palin's grasp of the issues also is marked by partisan and ideological gaps. But among white women, a natural affinity group for Palin, barely over half, 52 percent, think she understands complex issues.

Palin's Popularity Suffers, Possibly Dragging on McCain Ticket

Naturally there's also partisanship in Biden's favorability rating.

But in terms of experience and grasp of the issues he holds majorities across the board; even among Republicans, 55 percent say he's experienced enough, and 66 percent think he grasps complex issues.

Results like these set up low expectations for Palin; it's possible she could advance simply by exceeding them.

But another possible dynamic was expressed by McCain himself last spring, when he noted that his age -- 72 -- increased the importance of his vice-presidential pick.

METHODOLOGY: This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone Sept. 27-29, 2008, among a random sample of 1,271 adults, including an oversample of African Americans (weighted to their correct share of the national population), for a total of 165 black respondents. Results among the 1,070 registered voters surveyed have a 3-point error margin. Sampling, data collection and tabulation by TNS of Horsham, PA.

Click here for a PDF with charts and full questionnaire.