Sarah Palin’s media blitz—including a national book tour, an interview with Oprah, magazine cover stories and cable TV one-on-ones—serves as a reminder that whether you voted for her or against her, whether you love her or despise her, Sarah Palin is a political force to be reckoned with. This is the real reason she drew so much ire from the Left in 2008. And it’s the same reason she may give some Republicans pause in 2012.
The 2012 election is an eternity away, but this much we know: Barack Obama will be on the ballot; if 2008 proved anything, it’s that he is a masterful politician; and in addition to his formidable political and rhetorical skills, next time he will be running with all the built-in advantages of incumbency. Whether his fusion policy/post-partisan shtick will work by then is a subject for another essay. Regardless, Obama doesn’t need any help from the GOP in 2012. Yet if any one of the GOP’s headliners runs as a third-party candidate, Obama would be virtually assured of an easy re-election. And the most likely rogue candidate would seem to be the self-styled rogue herself, Sarah Palin.
Palin’s independent streak is already legendary. She ran an insurgent campaign, the story goes, against Alaska’s GOP establishment. And she surprised everyone by resigning the Alaska governorship last July, just months after being catapulted into the national spotlight as arguably the most talked about vice presidential candidate ever.
As Sen. John McCain’s running mate, she brandished some of the essential ingredients of success in modern politics: She proved her toughness in the face of withering media attacks on her, on her family, on her intelligence and integrity, even on her femininity. She showed an almost-effortless capacity to connect with many voters. And not coincidentally, she was and is telegenic—a crucial trait in this image-driven age, one that really can’t be learned.
In addition, her maverick populism appeals to many, as does her biography, her plainspoken delivery and her anti-Washington, anti-elite attitude—and understandably so in an era of billion-dollar Wall Street bailouts.
Moreover, setting aside the MSNBC-New York Times appraisals of Palin, she was, quite simply, “a national sensation,” as Yuval Levin, a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, observes in a review of the would-be presidential candidate. “The striking thing about the last two months of the 2008 presidential race was not Palin’s inability to turn things around decisively for McCain,” Levin reminds us, “but her success in giving McCain a lead for even a short while.” He notes that exit polling indicates 60 percent of those interviewed said McCain’s choice of Palin “had been a factor in their vote. Of these, 56 percent voted for McCain while only 43 percent voted for Obama….Palin succeeded where almost no vice presidential candidate ever has before in winning sustained support for the ticket.”
In other words, no one can question her popularity among a large chunk of voters—and hence her capacity to have an impact on the GOP nomination battle.
Today, she’s clearly laying the groundwork for her own White House run. Leaving the governor’s office has freed her to stay connected with the conservative base, sharpen her policy positions as well as how she presents them, work the speaking circuit, raise money and write a book.
Good for her. I hope she makes her case well. And if she makes a run for the Republican nomination, I hope she gets a fair shake. If a summertime USAToday/Gallup poll is any indication, she will. Two-thirds of Republicans say they want Palin to be “a major national political figure.” About the same percentage of Republicans—65 percent—would “seriously consider supporting” Palin.
Of course, that same polling indicates that Palin is viewed negatively by “a third of Republicans, two-thirds of independents and eight in 10 Democrats.”
So what happens if Palin runs and then fails to muster enough delegates to win the nomination? Will she play the role of a good point guard, to borrow a page from her bio, and let the nominee take the shot? Or will the self-styled rogue go rogue?
Along with her frontier independence, Palin’s shoot-from-the-hip style makes a third-party run plausible. Make no mistake: Winning the election as a third-party candidate is no more plausible for her than it was for Nader, Perot, Buchanan or other spoilers. But running an insurgent campaign, taking her legion of loyal supporters with her, and siphoning away enough votes to sink the Republican nominee is another story.
Alan Dowd writes on politics and public policy.