Is she running, or not? As her reportedly quite flattering campaign biopic “The Undefeated” is set to screen tonight in Iowa, pundits are of two minds regarding Sarah Palin’s intentions. Critics continue to argue that she is teasing the media and the public to bolster her public profile as a means of making money, but has no real intention of making a serious run for the presidency. They point out that she has little in the way of a campaign organization in key states, seems not to be interested in cultivating important party leaders, positively revels in antagonizing the mainstream media, and generally seems intent on violating all the conventional rules for running for president. Most recently, she apparently has done little outreach to leading Iowan politicians in advance of her stop there today to watch the unveiling of the biopic.
But others argue that critics are wrong to judge her campaign by conventional standards. While the pundits apply yesterday’s standards to today’s campaigns, Palin – beginning with her first decision to step down as Alaskan governor – has been consistently ahead of the pack in grasping the realities of running for office in the internet-based, social networking age of media communications. Her recent bus tour of historic American sites, which kicked off at the end of May for a month-long trip up East Coast, is the latest manifestation of her ability to maintain media coverage while simultaneously ignoring the mainstream media, much to their chagrin. She has coupled these media-savvy excursions with extensive reliance on social networks sites to keep her supporters apprised of her plans. So far, that strategy has worked to keep her name in the limelight. A study cited in Pollster.com indicates “Palin continues to be a bigger magnet for online pageviews than the other announced- and potential-Republican presidential hopefuls.” Moreover, that unconventional strategy has paid monetary dividends, as this revealing study by Adam Bonica and Kevin Collins indicates (via John Sides at the MonkeyCage).
The top figure shows the proportion of funds raised by Republican candidates from donations of $500 or less (the y-axis – this includes unitemized contributions) against candidate ideology (the x-axis). The bottom figure shows the relationship between conservatism and small donations more generally. Their point is that the more conservative candidates generally raise a greater proportion of their funds from small donors. Some of you will recall that in 2008 the media gushed over candidate Barack Obama’s ability to raise money from small donors, which they saw as evidence that he was attracting support from presumably less-partisan individuals who normally wouldn’t contribute to campaigns. As my colleague Bert Johnson has shown in his research, and as this chart supports (assuming contributors send money to like-minded candidates), that claim was nonsense; small donations typically come from the most partisan and ideologically extreme portion of the electorate, not from the less political moderate middle. (The circle sizes are proportional to the Intrade share prices for the respective candidates as of June 13th, with those who have formally announced in red, and those not yet to announce in purple. Green signifies the individual is not running.)
For my purpose, however, the most important point is that among all the candidates, Palin has relied most heavily on small donations, with over 80% of her contributions falling into this category. Perception-wise, then, she is the Obama of 2012 (although in fact Obama did not raise an unusually large proportion of money through small donations, media stories to the contrary notwithstanding.)
So, is she running? As long-time readers know, I have long maintained that she is, and that she will continue to do so, until something (a drop in funding, consistently bad polling, family objections, or electoral defeat) persuades her to stop. If I am right, why does she not emulate the other candidates, and do the traditional things like putting together the seemingly requisite on-the-ground campaign infrastructure in key states? The answer, I think, is she is doing what lots of working mothers with newborns do: trying to juggle competing priorities without skimping on any of them. In short, she’s campaigning on the cheap. By relying on social networking and media-centered events, most recently with the unveiling of her biopic in Iowa, she’s gambling that she can stay in the race without running a traditional campaign. The non-declared candidacy has additional payoffs: she can keep her day job as a Fox commentator and avoid campaign restrictions on how she spends her money. My guess is she will continue with this tactic as long as possible. And why not? It’s not the first time she has adopted an unorthodox tactic that turned out to pay huge dividends. To date, she has proved more astute than the pundits when it comes to campaign strategy. Even the recent release of her emails confounded her critics, as they reportedly revealed no Couric-style gaffes. Instead, she came across as a focused, hands-on and a quite competent chief executive. (And, at least according to one report, the emails demonstrated a level of writing skill that could put college students’ writing to shame! Full disclosure: I base this on media reports; I’ve read only a handful of the emails.)
In 1976 Jimmy Carter, a little-known Governor from Georgia dubbed “Jimmy Who?”, stunned the pundits by capturing the Democratic primary and going on to win the presidency. He did so by taking advantage of the new nominating system that had developed in the wake of nominating reforms instigated by the Democrats. While the party frontrunners like Scoop Jackson prepared to do battle in the big-ticket primary states, Carter went all out in Iowa and New Hampshire, using early victories there (he actually finished second in Iowa to the “uncommitted slate”) to create the perception of campaign momentum. The key to his success was recognizing the realities of the new campaign system. But it was also a strategy dictated by his own weakness – as a relatively unknown candidate, he really couldn’t afford to adopt a conventional strategy and go toe-to-toe with better known-candidates in the bigger states. (In the same vein, necessity is what dictated Obama’s decision to compete in caucuses in 2008).
A similar logic, but based on different reasons, I think, is governing Palin’s campaign strategy. As a working mom balancing equally important priorities, she is running the only way she can. So far, it happens to be working. At some point, however, she will have to decide whether to take the formal plunge. Until she does, Palin will remain the 120-pound moose in the room.