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How Operation Bristol Hurt Dancing With the Stars -- And Could Hurt Sarah Palin

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When Bristol Palin first took the dance floor in the premiere episode of Season 11 of Dancing with the Stars, few expected the teen-mom-turned-abstinence-advocate to perform particularly well. But in the first few weeks, she proved her critics wrong, turning in decent dances even as the judges gently nudged her repeatedly to up her performance level to match her nascent dancing abilities. And, dare we say, increased appearances by proud Mama Palin didn't hurt her chances any, either.

Fast forward to Week 9, and Bristol's outlasted two top competitors (Rick Fox and Audrina Patridge) widely believed to be contenders; screwed up her jive only to say goodbye to Florence Henderson (contrary to political observers' opinions, the gorilla suits were not the problem that night); and, last night, trashed her remaining competitors as "fake" before blaming Levi Johnson for screwing up her life. It was not what regular viewers have come to expect from the pre-finals producer packages -- but then, regular viewers could be forgiven for not having expected Bristol from making it this far.

The producers' retention algorithm is based on judges' scores and popular vote for two purposes: to maintain the integrity of the finals and competition by helping maintain the best dancers despite potential audience disinterest; and to keep the most popular mediocre dancers as long as possible to keep the audience interested. Bristol certainly should have lasted to the middle of the competition; she certainly should not have outlasted at least Rick and Audrina based on how that algorithm has almost always functioned.

But Sarah Palin's vast and unending popularity -- and her supporters' fanaticism to defend everything in the Palinsphere -- threw everyone for a curveball. Let us be clear: no one should begrudge a mother wanting her daughter to win, or using her popularity to help that. But Operation Bristol isn't that, and it isn't about conservatives watching (and enjoying) Dancing with the Stars and voting for their favorite candidate: it's about supporting one dancer on a show many of them aren't even watching for strictly political reasons.

Conservative talk show host Tammy Bruce, in concert with Palin fan sites like Conservatives4Palin (originally started by the woman who now ghostwrites Palin's Facebook page and, reportedly, her Twitter account), started Operation Bristol not to drive more viewers or to encourage more people to watch the show, but to allow them to vote for Bristol without ever having to watch. Reactions on Twitter last night to Carrie Ann's critique of Bristol's distinct lack of emotion in her waltz from conservative bloggers indicated both that they'd never seen the show before and that they considered any criticism of their favored candidate all but beyond the pale.

And yet, regular viewers of the show -- who, let's be honest, are probably more conservative than the average liberal upset about Operation Bristol, if the fan faves and general cast members are anything by which to judge --know full well that Bristol plateaued several weeks ago. She continues to drop steps in fast dances; Mark continues to over-dance around her; and she continues to have difficulty providing two dances a week that are both technically proficient and high on the performance scale. The judges are there to provide criticism and contribute to the best dancers making the finals and, if we're all being quite honest, Brandy, Jennifer, and Kyle all out-danced Bristol Monday night.

The reason that the judges scores count in DWTS is to increase the probability that the contest will function as a meritocracy; Operation Bristol is deliberately designed to subvert the meritocracy of the show in favor of awarding the Mirror Ball trophy to the daughter of a politician the movement's participants like. Operation Bristol doesn't do DWTS any favors as, without Bristol, most of the movement's folks who did bother to tune in this week likely won't next season; with Bristol's overwrought supporters determined to undermine the meritocracy of the show, they're turning loyal viewers off weekly. And, what's worse it that they are turning even conservative viewers off with their obstinate desire to see Bristol win despite her mediocre skills -- and one only imagines the all-important independent voters are hardly in love with the Mama Grizzlies' plan to promote mediocrity over excellence or personal popularity over actual skills.

The plan to hand Bristol the Mirror Ball next week despite the fact that there were three candidates who were much, much better than her might make Bristol happy -- until Monday night's unfortunate display of attitude, we would have expected that she would prefer to lose graciously rather than win this way, but now we don't know -- and it might make her mom happy, but her fan base is hurting the show and the public perception of the woman they admire and the daughter they claim to champion. Plus it means the audience that loves (even grudgingly) to watch people dance and improve won't get to see the best people battle it out: instead, we'll be stuck watching Mark and his guyliner dance around Bristol's flaws while quietly bemoaning whomever isn't on screen. And from the look on Mark's face the last two weeks, he knows that's bad for him and the show he loves.

This piece originally appeared on WetPaint's Dancing With The Stars fan site.