A shadow political campaign or an "attagirl" for a struggling amateur? Bristol Palin's success on this season's "Dancing With the Stars" defies easy explanation.
Either way, Bristol has something to brag about if talk at the Palin dinner table turns toward vote-getting ability. Just like her mom, Sarah, and her campaign for the vice presidency two years ago, however, Bristol fell short at the end. She finished third to champion Jennifer Grey of "Dirty Dancing" fame during the ABC competition's two-hour finale Tuesday. Runner-up was Disney Channel star Kyle Massey.
Palin's march, shimmy and cha-cha to the finals put "Dancing With the Stars," of all programs, into the nation's political cauldron. Clearly, Bristol drew support from many people who admire her mother, who frequently appeared in the show's studio audience to root for her daughter. Bristol said Tuesday that if she won, "it would be like giving a big middle finger to people who hate my mom and hate me."
Sarah Palin supporters helped organize campaigns to keep her daughter on the show, like radio talk host Tammy Bruce's "Operation Bristol." Conservative blogger Kevin DuJan's Hillbuzz.org website also led a get-out-the-vote effort and wrote after Tuesday's results that Palin "drove the Left crazy for three months. Score!"
Bristol's success only intensified the spotlight on Sarah Palin to an extraordinary degree for an out-of-office politician, largely in ways that have nothing to do with politics. Besides the "Dancing With the Stars" exposure, Palin's TLC series about Alaska is in the midst of airing, and she has a new book due out.
Jason Gershman, a mathematician from Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., who studied some of the telephone voting patterns, said he believed Bristol Palin's support was largely political, given that it appeared she got more votes during the weeks that Sarah was in the studio audience. He said he sensed a backlash brewing against Palin by fans who thought the best dancer should win, and they coalesced around Grey, who kept winning perfect scores from the judges despite fighting through injury.
"If her name was Bristol Smith or Bristol Jones, she would not be on the show or she would not have gotten this far," he said. "She went from being a bad dancer to a mediocre dancer. But she was not the best dancer."
Luke Londo, a 22-year-old college student from Marquette, Mich., said he felt sympathy for Bristol Palin for having her dancing ability denigrated and even receiving death threats. He called in to vote for her in the finals. He also voted for McCain-Palin in 2008, calling Sarah "a fantastic woman."
He wasn't the only one who felt that way.
"I first voted for Bristol because of Sarah," said Ken Flaa, 54, a semiretired accountant from Mullica Hill, N.J. "Now I believe she stands on her own. I have been a fan of Sarah Palin since 2008. I feel her, her family and the tea party are most aligned with my thinking about government."
The interest created by Bristol paid off for ABC and its most popular program. Tuesday's finale reached 24 million viewers, the biggest audience for "Dancing With the Stars" in six seasons, the Nielsen Co. said Wednesday. The audience swelled to more than 26 million for the show's last half- hour. Viewership for the series in general is up 17 percent from last fall's edition.
Some critics believe that has come with a cost.
"ABC just might be on the verge of outsmarting itself; using Palin's cult of personality to juice this cycle's ratings while ensuring a result that just might give the lie to everything `Dancing With the Stars' stands for," wrote Eric Deggans, critic for the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times.
But it is entertainment, after all, and ultimately a popularity contest.
Conrad Green, the show's executive producer, suggested that people are reading too much into the contest politically.
"There's nothing that unusual with what's going on here," Green said. "This is just a lot of people who've got an opinion about Sarah Palin feeding into the show who start to shout a lot about a conspiracy. I think a lot of people are shouting who don't actually watch the show and don't understand how it all works."
Many of Bristol Palin's supporters readily conceded she wasn't the best dancer. But they admired her pluck and willingness to put herself on the line.
Gretchen Offord, a women's crisis counselor from Shasta Lake, Calif., said she detested the condescension that was directed Palin's way by many of the professional dancers and judges on the show.
"I tend to have sympathy for people who have the odds stacked against them," she said.
Offord voted for Bristol. She doesn't particularly like Sarah.
Susan Gonzalez, a 26-year-old teacher from Washington, D.C., said she and many of her friends became fans of Bristol as the season went along.
"There's something about her that I think every girl in her 20s can relate to," she said. "She's very vulnerable, and watching her gain confidence over the course of the season was kind of interesting – the fact that she's not the best, and she knows she's not the best, but every week she goes on and puts on a brave face."
Monday was the first night Palin looked like she was enjoying herself, Gonzalez said. "She kind of seemed relieved that it was over," she said.
She said she doesn't support Palin's mother, "and if the voting power behind Bristol says something about the voting power of the tea party, I think we have a lot to be afraid of in 2012."
Stephanie Tompkins, a 23-year-old financial analyst from Dallas, said she voted for Palin to stick up for her when a lot of people were picking on her.
"I can relate to Bristol," she said. "We're pretty much the same age. She's never done something like this before and I think it's pretty brave for her to get up and do something like this when she's been criticized."
There's politics, there's sympathy and there's also mischief.
Adam Tills, a 41-year-old website owner from the Minneapolis area, first supported Palin as part of a popular online campaign to mess with television competition programs by encouraging votes for the least talented performers. Then he thought the whole controversy over why Palin continued on in the show was so silly that it would be fun to see what happened if she actually won.
So he kept on voting for Bristol.
"I'd just love to see the world turned on its ear over this because that's what everyone will be talking about for a week," he said.
Associated Press Entertainment Writer Sandy Cohen contributed to this report.