By Farooq A. Kperogi
Barack Obama is no longer the man of the moment in American politics. He has been upstaged by a new kid on the American political block. She is Sarah Palin (pronounced pei-lin), the governor of Alaska and vice presidential nominee of Republican candidate John McCain.
Since her surprise nomination for vice president two weeks ago, she has generated tremendous excitement and curiosity among Americans in ways that are analogous to Obama’s first entry into American national politics. She has now stolen the show from Obama. While Republicans are excited, even ecstatic, about this, Democrats are worried that this may signal the end of the game for their candidate.
The worries are grounded on emerging facts about what has now been called the “Palin power.” For starters, her acceptance speech at the National Republican Convention in Twin Cities, Minnesota, was viewed live by over 40 million people, according the Nielsen Media Research. This record displaces Obama’s nearly 40 million, which had been touted as the most watched political event in U.S. history. Democratic vice presidential candidate Joe Biden’s acceptance speech was viewed live by just 24 million people.
In part because of the buzz created by Palin’s speech a day earlier, McCain, a normally uninspiring and colorless speaker who puts his listeners to sleep, tied with Obama in TV viewership of his acceptance speech. Palin’s superior live viewership and McCain’s rivaling of Obama’s record combined to make the Republican national convention the most-watched convention in U.S. television history, beating a record set by the Democrats a week earlier.
Palin more popular than Obama and McCain
Sarah Palin isn’t just a “buzzworthy,” curiosity-provoking new entrant into American politics; she’s also America’s most popular politician now, a distinction once enjoyed by Obama. According to Rasmussen Reports, a nationally regarded electronic publishing firm specializing in the collection, publication, and distribution of public opinion polling information, Palin is now viewed favorably by almost 60 percent of American voters.
This is remarkable given that only a week prior to the poll, almost 70 percent of American voters said they had never even heard of her. Similarly, after her nomination as Republican vice presidential nominee on August 29, 2008 and before her record-breaking acceptance speech, she was viewed favorably by just 52 percent of American voters.
Rasmussen Reports’ data further shows what must be a disturbing piece of information for the Obama campaign: more Americans now think John McCain showed better judgment in his choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate than they think Barack Obama showed in his choice of John Biden.
“Perhaps most stunning,” said the Rasmussen Reports, “is the fact that Palin's favorable ratings are now a point higher than either man at the top of the Presidential tickets this year.” As of last week, Obama and McCain are each viewed favorably by 57 percent of voters, a percent lower than Palin. Biden is viewed favorably by just 48 percent of voters.
Another disturbing statistic for the Obama campaign is that American voters are now fairly evenly divided as to whether Palin (former mayor of a town with only a little over 5,000 people and governor of a state with less than 700,000 people) or Obama has the better experience to be President. Forty-four percent (44 percent) of voters say Palin has the better experience while 48 percent say Obama has the edge. Among voters who are neither registered Democrats nor registered Republicans 45 percent say Obama has better experience while 42 percent say Palin is better prepared. In both cases, Obama is leading Palin by a mere 4 to 3 percent.
Obama’s downward slide on the totem pole of American voter sentiments was prefigured by a previous poll that showed evidence of what media pundits here called an Obama fatigue. What used to be his most potent weapon—media visibility—is now becoming his greatest undoing.
According to a poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press on August 6, 2008—nearly a month before Palin was picked as McCain’s vice presidential running mate—close to half of Americans said they had already had and heard too much of Obama. “And by a slight, but statistically significant margin - 22% to 16% - people say that recently they have a less rather than more favorable view of the putative Democratic nominee,” the report added.
Given this creeping, pre-existing Obama fatigue, it came as little surprise that Palin has eclipsed Obama’s erstwhile phenomenal star power. One of the auxiliary consequences of this is, of course, that Obama has lost his lead in the polls and is now trailing behind McCain.
Why Sarah Palin is popular
Palin’s popularity is largely traceable to the unusualness of her choice. In a sense, she is the new Obama of American politics—just like Hillary Clinton used to be the new sensation of American politics before Obama displaced her. It’s a gradation of novelty.
When Obama hadn’t emerged on the national scene, the prospect of Hillary Clinton becoming the first female Democratic presidential candidate, and probably the first female president, excited many Americans. For a long time, it seemed as if she was the inevitable candidate.
Then Obama emerged. And the novelty of Hillary Clinton’s candidacy wore off. Obama rode on the momentum that his novelty conferred on him to edge Hillary out of the race for the nomination of the Democratic Party. Now, someone who is even more “improbable” (as Obama likes to describe his emergence) than he has emerged on the national scene.
The prospect of “change” that Obama’s candidacy not only symbolized but also sloganeered has been hijacked by Palin. In more ways than Obama, she will be a fresh face in Washington, D.C. She is from a state that is closer to Russia than it is to any part of the contiguous United States. (It takes the same number of hours to travel from Anchorage, the largest city in Alaska, to China as it takes to travel from Alaska to Washington, D.C.)
In a period of mass disillusionment with eight years of President George W. Bush’s administration, distance from Washington DC is a huge political asset. And any candidate who can prove more distance from Washington gets more political mileage.
Precisely because of this, the McCain campaign has now usurped Obama’s campaign theme of “change”—to the shock and amazement of Democrats. (Scholars of American presidential politics have found that in moments of economic distress and political uncertainty, such as is the case now, candidates who represent themselves as candidates of “change” often win).
With the new energy from Palin, the McCain campaign decided to snatch the slogan of “change” from Obama. During his acceptance speech, McCain told Americans that “change is coming.” He has since been repeating the same message in his stump speeches. Palin complements this by saying that Obama’s vice presidential pick has been in Washington too long to bring any change.
But Obama has been fighting back by relentlessly asserting that McCain is no different from Bush.
“Since the beginning of this campaign, we’ve been talking about change. … We must be on to something, because I notice now everyone’s talking about change now,” Obama said.
“John McCain has said that change is coming. … Now think about this coming from the party that’s been in charge for eight years. They’ve been running the show, been up in the White House. John McCain brags, ‘90 percent of the time I have voted with George Bush’ … and suddenly he’s the change agent.”
This is a substantive point. However, Palin’s strength has never been her substance. Her strength has been that people tend to like her in spite of—or perhaps because of— what appears like her substance deficit, according to two of Palin's opponents in the 2006 Alaska governor's race.
"She wouldn't have articulated one coherent policy and people would just be fawning all over her," Republican-Independent candidate Andrew Halcro told The New York Times. "[Democratic candidate Tony Knowles] and I looked at each other and it was, like, this isn't about policy or Alaska issues; this is about people's most basic instincts: 'I like you, and you make me feel good.'"
Palin’s potential problems
While Palin is currently wildly popular, there is the very strong potential that this popularity will fade fast as more information about her is unearthed. For instance, although she’s a journalism graduate, she has occasional troubles with English grammar (prompting a columnist to ask: “Doesn't the University of Idaho require its graduates to learn English?”) and knows next to nothing about international issues.
"Ms. Palin appears to have traveled very little outside the United States," reported The Times. "In July 2007, she had to get a passport before she visited members of the Alaska National Guard stationed in Kuwait." Yet Anchorage is a major hub for flights to Japan, Korea and China.
Not surprisingly, only a year ago, she couldn’t even answer a reporter’s question about the war in Iraq."I've been so focused on state government, I haven't really focused much on the war in Iraq," Palin told the Alaska Business Monthly in March 2007 when she was asked for an opinion on the Iraq war. "I heard on the news about the new deployments, and while I support our president, Condoleezza Rice and the administration, I want to know that we have an exit plan."
If she had been following the news, she would have realized that she was swimming against her party’s mainstream by talking about an exit plan for American troops in Iraq. In fact, her ticket mate, John McCain, has consistently opposed any exit plan for American troops from Iraq. At a town hall meeting in New Hampshire on January 3, 2008, McCain took his opposition to an “exit plan” even farther by declaring that it would be "fine with me" if American troops remained in Iraq for "maybe a hundred years."
But two potentially explosive issues that may effectively sink Palin are: her associations with a secessionist Alaskan political party and an ongoing investigation into whether she fired a state commissioner for failing to oblige her request to fire a police officer who divorced her sister.
According to the Alaskan Division of Elections, Palin’s husband, Tod Palin (a union worker and fisherman who doesn’t even have a bachelor’s degree) was a registered member of the Alaskan Independence Party from 1995 to 2002. The Alaskan Independence Party (AIP), founded in 1978, advocates a plebiscite that will allow Alaskans to vote to secede from the United States.
The Party’s founder, Joe Vogler, was an unapologetic secessionist who had tremendous contempt for the United States. On the party’s Web site, he is quoted to have said, "I'm an Alaskan, not an American…I've got no use for America or her damned institutions." For the McCain campaign whose newfound slogan is “Country First,” Palin’s associations with a secessionist group whose slogan is “Alaska First” could prove politically disastrous.
Although the Alaskan Division of Election said Sarah Palin had been registered as a Republican since 1982, she has had strong personal associations with the secessionist AIP. She and her husband attended the Party’s 1994 convention in her hometown of Wasilla, according to the Los Angeles Times. Six months ago, she also videotaped a solidarity speech to the Party’s convention.
In the video, which is now posted on YouTube, she told the delegates to "keep up the good work," and wished the party luck on what she called its "inspiring convention."
Dexter Clark, the vice chairman of the AIP, in videotaped comments to the second North American Secessionist Convention in October, 2007, in Chattanooga, Tennessee, said Sarah Palin is a member of the AIP. The video is now posted on YouTube too.
"She was an AIP member before she got the job as the mayor of a small town," Clark told the group. "That was a nonpartisan job. But you get along to go along. She eventually joined the Republican Party."
The McCain campaign distributed Palin's voter registration records last week to show that she had never been a member of the AIP. It remains to be seen how many people believe this and how much damage this story can inflict on her—and McCain—politically.
The second big problem confronting Palin is what the American media now calls the “troopergate” investigation. The allegations are that Palin, her family or her administration inappropriately forced then-Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan to fire Gov. Palin's ex-brother-in-law, state trooper Mike Wooten, who divorced the governor’s sister in very bitter circumstances.
Republican strategies to keep Palin’s popularity
Realizing that her wild popularity could be up for diminution, the Republican Party is jealously guarding its historic, game-changing vice presidential nominee from any critical searchlight.
The party’s first strategy is to use the gender card. Every critical question about her record is condemned as “sexist smear” campaign. In a country where terms like “racist,” “sexist” “homophobic” are grave devil terms, this strategy has been effective so far.
Charges of “sexism” against the media have not only slowed media investigation into her records, they have earned the McCain campaign more women voters than the Republican Party has ever attracted. At the time of writing this report, more women voters now support the McCain-Palin ticket than they do the Obama-Biden ticket.
The second strategy is to shield her from the media. Since her convention speech, she has neither spoken with the media nor with voters. In campaign appearances with McCain, she does no more than merely repeat lines from her acceptance speech.
According to The Associated Press, “…none of the candidates in this race has been so shielded from the media, so protected from any spontaneous situation [as Palin], and [her] unvarying remarks give the impression that she and her message are being tightly controlled.”
There are only two aims for this studious shielding of Palin: not to expose her weaknesses and to avoid falling victim to voter fatigue, such as Obama seems to be suffering. But this may be counterproductive. Voters, most of them women voters who can’t conceivably be accused of sexism, are now increasingly demanding that she speak to them.
According to an Associated Press reporter, after a rally in Pennsylvania recently, “a group of supporters waiting outside to shake hands with McCain and Palin screamed for Palin to jump up on an outdoor platform, as McCain had just done, and speak to them. ‘Speech! Speech!’ they cried.”
She ignored them and jumped into her SUV. But it remains to be seen how many times she can ignore voters’ request to speak to them.