Polls now show that Sarah Palin is in a dead heat with President Obama in popularity. The even more miraculous thing is that she's sprinting up, while Obama is sprinting down, in the popularity numbers. Obama's numbers drop is easy to explain. There's anger over an unpopular war, a contentious and divisive health care reform bill, shoveling billions to profligate banks and Wall Street financial houses, a dubious stimulus package, a two decade high joblessness rate, and the normal popularity slide all new presidents take.
The easy explanation for Palin's surge is that she holds no office, fuels the perverse mix of media assault, fascination and puffery, has a best-selling book and a photo-op tour to hype it, and her well-publicized spat with McCain. All play some part in the Palin renaissance, but only a part.
Palin not only has survived the unprecedented and much deserved personal and political pounding but shown that the politics of the fringe is anything but that. McCain did not plop the unknown, untested, and world affairs clueless Palin on his ticket because of her gender, smile and looks. Palin was no accident, mistake, or gamble. It was a hard-nosed, calculated political decision. She was there to get votes and cash for McCain; votes and cash from places that he didn't have a prayer of tapping. Without Palin his campaign was stuck in neutral and in grave danger of fast slipping into reverse. Palin was the vote and cash shot in the arm. In the first three days after she became the VP candidate pick McCain hauled in nearly $10 million. The poll bounce he got from her was just as dramatic. Palin turned McCain's flagging poll numbers into a polling dead heat with Obama after the GOP convention. She was the single biggest reason for the bounce. The GOP -Bush blamed financial crash quickly wiped out the bounce, and assured Obama the win. But the Palin effect was real, and still is.
She energizes and rallies conservatives, and polls say far more Americans self-identify themselves as conservatives than liberals, let alone progressives. Palin's motherly, family-values, fundamentalist pitch fascinates even those who personally disdain her. This includes much of the Palin obsessed media.
Her perceived political ineptness and naiveté smacks of a bumbling political innocence that far from being a liability endears her to throngs on the national trail. He Going Rogue tour has made her even more visible and far more popular than any other GOP politician and that includes McCain. Packs of journalists, political pundits, and politicians, nearly all of them among the biggest Palin bashers on the planet, stumbled over each other to get Palin's autograph after her speech at the Gridiron Club in Washington D.C. in early December.
Palin in a disjointed, chaotic way has picked up the popularity pace at the very moment when independents are back peddling from Obama in droves. Millions of them are disgusted at the partisan bickering that Obama promised to end, sick and disgusted with the financial and corporate fat cats gorging at the taxpayer trough, ambivalent at the ramp up of a war that seems endless, and an economy that has stirred deep jitters among the middle class. The backing by independents of Obama was never more than a slender thread thick anyway. Palin appeals to them as an anti Beltway outsider, folksy, plain speaking mid-America true native daughter; the diametric opposite of Obama. Toss in a mix of fear, anxiety, and subtle racism, and Palin endures as the lightening rod for an anxious mid-America.
GOP regulars and political pundits routinely laugh her off as a possible GOP presidential candidate in 2012. And she's still a favored running joke of late night comics. But this only endears her to millions as a scorned mother non-politician. This elevates her public stock and appeal even higher.
The irresistible stew of Palin fascination and sensationalism not only threatens Obama and the Democrats. It also poses peril for the GOP. Palin's meddle in a New York Congressional race in effect delivered a century old GOP seat to the Democrats sent off loud bells and whistles among GOP regulars that Palin must be appeased at all costs.
In the GOP's inevitable showdown with Democrats in Congressional races in 2010 and with Obama in the 2012 presidential election, short of a major economic collapse and a botched administration handling of a catastrophic terror attack on US shores, if Palin's army stays home Obama gets a hands down second term. For now the Palin effect has given the Democrats a cautionary warning that millions don't like and don't accept their rule and the GOP something it couldn't do for itself, created a totem figure who can match Obama's popularity.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His forthcoming book, How Obama Governed: The Year of Crisis and Challenge (Middle Passage Press) will be released in January 2010.