There’s a great deal of talk that Sarah Palin will be a “game-changer.” She may well live up to that billing, but not in the way that many think.
Palin has praised Hillary Clinton and promised to crack the glass ceiling. But she is probably not going to draw massive numbers of Clinton’s female supporters to the Republican side. Some of them still resent Obama, and they all like the idea of a woman on the national ticket — in theory. A pro-life, pro-gun conservative woman, however, is not part of that theory.
So far, she is causing only modest movement in the general electorate. In a USA Today poll, 67 percent of voters say that she does not affect their vote choice. Eighteen percent say that she makes them more likely to vote for McCain, but 11 percent say that she makes them less likely.
There is a chance that she could end up hurting McCain. His vetters researched her background, and presumably tried to anticipate any unflattering information that the other side might unearth. Nevertheless, it’s possible that they either overlooked something bad or misunderstood its significance. Twenty years ago, George H. W. Bush’s vetters failed to prepare Dan Quayle for questions about his Vietnam-era National Guard service. Such political landmines are what Donald Rumsfeld might call “unknown unknowns.”
There is also a well-known hazard: the likelihood of rookie mistakes. Newcomers to national politics quickly learn that their every word weighs a ton, and that some of these words crash on their heads. Each time Palin makes a gaffe, no matter how trivial, Democrats will post it on YouTube faster than you can say “moose stew.” Reporters will pounce with “gotcha” factual questions. (“Governor, can you name the president of Mexico?”) False or stammering answers could quickly create the impression that she’s not ready for the vice presidency.
And yet Palin is doing something very important. Until last week, Democrats were much more passionate than Republicans about this election. Accordingly, it seemed likely that they would have an edge in motivating volunteers and getting voters to the polls. Palin is suddenly closing this “enthusiasm gap.” According to Jonathan Martin of The Politico, her selection “ignited a wave of elation and emotion that has led some grass-roots activists to weep with joy.” According to a McCain staffer, the campaign raised $7 million right after the Friday announcement.
Why has Palin generated such energy? Some reasons are obvious. Economic conservatives like her fiscal record. Gun-rights advocates are eager to get behind a moose-hunting NRA member. Social and religious conservatives profoundly admire her for welcoming a Down Syndrome baby into the world. Often with good reason, they suspect that Republican politicians cynically adopt pro-life positions without any real commitment to the cause. Palin is different. She has walked the pro-life walk.
There’s something else that could rally the base even further. In the mainstream media and the blogosphere, liberals are sneering at her. The big hair, the big family, the hunting rifle, the degree from the University of Idaho, the husband who does commercial fishing and races snowmobiles — all these things tell the urban liberal elite that she’s not one of them. Most telling of all, she placed second in the 1984 Miss Alaska Pageant. Bourgeois bohemians don’t do beauty contests.
The sneers may amuse fans of Keith Olbermann and the Daily Show, but they might not go over well with … you know, the kind of people who cling to guns and religion. Some of them may have been thinking of sitting out the election or even crossing to Obama. But if they get the idea that liberals are laughing at them, they might regard a vote for the McCain-Palin ticket as a good way to register their disapproval.
— John J. Pitney, Jr. is the Roy P. Crocker Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College.