Ezra Klein links to an analysis of 2000 voters showing that of several traits that influenced voters, “knowledgable” was pretty low on the list.
Surveys conducted by the National Election Study team in each presidential year since 1980 have asked prospective voters to rate the presidential candidates on a variety of specific traits. In 2000, for example, survey respondents were asked how well the phrases “moral,” “really cares about people like you,” “knowledgeable,” and “provides strong leadership” described Bush and Al Gore. The biggest difference in perceptions of the two candidates was that people saw Bush as considerably less “knowledgeable” than Gore — by 11 points on a 100-point scale. (They also saw Bush as less empathetic, but most considered him a stronger leader.)
How much did that matter? My analysis suggests that an undecided voter who saw Bush as 11 points less “knowledgeable” than Gore was only about 1.3% less likely to vote for Bush as a result. Comparable differences on the other trait dimensions were three to five times as consequential. Clearly, voters in 2000 were much more concerned about electing someone who was strong, empathetic, and moral, with “knowledgeable” a distant fourth. And they weren’t just giving the genial anti-intellectual Bush a pass — much the same pattern has held in other recent elections.
…But the people who matter — the voters whose minds are still not made up — will mostly not care whether Palin can rattle off the names of Supreme Court cases or world leaders. If she comes across as strong and empathetic, that may be enough.
I think this is wrong for a few reasons.
First, the political climate of the 2000 election was vastly different. Our budget was running a surplus, recent foreign policy forays had been succesful, 9/11 hadn’t happened, and our economy was still quite strong (though showing signs of weakness). The point is, there really weren’t a terrible number of issues on which “knowledge” would have made a tremendous difference. Conversly, we’re mired in a host of problems from a misguided (and expensive) foreign policy to a faltering economy to cocaine-fueled sex parties in the Department of the Interior. Times like these require competence.
Secondly, Sarah Palin isn’t merely unknowlegable, she’s embarassingly and quite obviously in over her head. Perhaps many voters can’t name foreign dignitaries, but most people can tell you what newspapers they read or name more than one court decision (or at least an issue like the “gun ban”). As I’ve argued before, Sarah Palin’s qualifaction problem isn’t just that she’s unqualified, it’s that she’s so obviously unqualified.
Finally, any criticism of Sarah Palin is ultimately a criticism of John McCain. People who see Sarah Palin embarass herself and her party really see the shallow cynicism and lack of seriousness with which John McCain has run his campaign. Her performance reflects on John McCain’s judgment — one his claimed strengths — not merely on her fitness for office alone.