Sarah Palin’s “One Nation” bus tour through America’s historic sites could be the start of a presidential campaign. Or she could be kicking off a new reality-TV series. With Palin, it’s often hard to tell the difference.
She insists she is still making up her mind about a White House run. But we do know that Palin represents a new archetype in our public life, the politician-as-celebrity — or celebrity-as-politician — who has mastered the modern media environment better than anyone else. With the possible exception of Donald Trump, who had pizza with Palin when her tour hit New York.
That means big trouble for the Republican Party should Palin decide to run. If she wins the nomination, the party will field a candidate even many Republicans regard as unqualified and unelectable. Karl Rove, one of the savviest GOP strategists, has repeatedly questioned her “gravitas” and warned that “the American people have high standards” when picking a president.
Polling reinforces Rove’s point. In a recent Gallup survey, 62 percent said they would “definitely not” vote for Palin. Even among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents 37 percent view her unfavorably, ABC reports.
If Palin seeks the nomination and loses, her candidacy could still damage her party in two ways. Her potent ability to attract media attention could make it more difficult for more serious but less visible candidates — such as Tim Pawlenty and Jon Huntsman — to emerge from the pack. And her doctrinaire conservative views could pull the whole primary field to the right, making it harder for the eventual nominee to pivot to the center during the general election.
That’s why the prospect of Palin has long delighted Democrats. As David Plouffe, a top adviser to President Obama, described the Republican dynamic, “These guys are going to be running through hoops to please the far-right folks who are kind of the acolytes of Sarah Palin. Now maybe she’ll be running herself. Something tells me we won’t get that lucky.”
Still, Palin remains a master manipulator of the media landscape. During her current bus tour, she seldom tells reporters where or when she’s going, and prefers to communicate by transmitting photos and messages directly through social media. “I don’t think I owe anything to the mainstream media,” she told Greta Van Susteren of Fox News, one of the great understatements of the year.
Palin has been following a similar strategy since the last election. In effect, she has created PNN, the Palin News Network, her own system of connecting to her followers through tweets and Facebook messages, books and speeches, reality-TV shows and paid appearances on Fox. And in none of these forums does she have to face the kind of tough questioning that unhinged her in 2008. As Robert Draper put it a New York Times magazine profile, “Palin can land a hard punch without ever setting foot in the ring.”
But her understanding of the media goes beyond PNN. She knows she can force mainstream reporters to write about her for one simple reason: She delivers eyeballs. With every media outlet in a desperate race for online traffic, which translates into ad revenues, putting Palin on your splash page is simply irresistible. Right there next to Charlie Sheen, Lindsay Lohan and starlets in bikinis.
Trump exploited that same media vulnerability. According to a study by the political website FiveThirtyEight, he received far more coverage than any other GOP figure this spring, 40 percent of the total; Palin, who made few public moves before the bus tour, still placed second.
Press critic Robert Lichter was talking about Trump, but he could have been discussing Palin, when he told USA Today: “There’s an unspoken collusion between journalists who are happy to have someone sell papers and increase clicks and Trump happy to raise his image, which he leverages to make more money.”
This “unspoken collusion” was on full display during last fall’s campaign. By far the most-covered figure was Christine O’Donnell, the Republican Senate nominee in Delaware who lost badly but filled that celebrity-as-politician profile by saying wacky things like “I am not a witch”in a campaign commercial.
In fact, eight of the 11 most-covered candidates lost, according to a study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism. “The amount of coverage,” the report concluded, “shows that the media will focus on a candidate who — despite little chance of winning — makes headlines with provocative statements and actions out of character with most mainstream politicians.”
In other words, Sarah Palin.
• Steve and Cokie’s new book, “Our Haggadah” (HarperCollins), was published this spring. Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.