FOUR years after she was plucked from Juneau, Alaska, in an ill-fated attempt to save John McCain’s presidential campaign, Sarah Palin continues to confound. Books, Tea Party rallies and appearances on Fox News have provided her with a powerful soapbox. In this year’s Republican Senate primaries, just one of the five candidates she has endorsed has witnessed defeat. Most vice presidents can’t boast of this kind of rapport with the grassroots. Neither can most Presidents.
As Queen of the Tea Party, Palin has taken an erstwhile diffuse – but highly-motivated – movement of free market activists and social conservatives, and consolidated them into her own Palin-branded coalition. Elites despise her, but Palin’s stump speeches at Tea Party rallies get activists to trudge to the polls, donate to candidates, and toil in their campaign offices. The Tea Party movement has seen its obituary sketched out before but, with Palin, it’s more organised and relevant than ever. These are also the very people Mitt Romney needs to mobilise to vote for him in November. But does this mean he needs Palin?
There is certainly a segment of the electorate that is attracted to Palin. But her enormous favourability deficit in national polls has prevented her from taking on a more prominent role in Romney’s presidential campaign. Romney already has some Tea Party proxies, but he also understands cost-benefit analysis. Some Republicans shun Palin rather than endure jabs from their opponents. Palin won’t have been on Romney’s vice presidential shortlist and she’s unlikely to give a speech at the Republican convention. Even Palin’s most fervent supporters are well aware of her liabilities. A poll earlier this year indicated that two thirds of Tea Partiers opposed her running for President. They adore Palin. But they care more about defeating Barack Obama.
Palin has not faded into insignificance in the presidential elections solely because of her divisiveness. It’s also because she’s not really needed. One Republican operative in a key swing state put it simply: “In a race this tight, staying at home, or not voting for Romney on Election Day, gets Obama re-elected.” The Tea Party doesn’t need Palin to get motivated to defeat Obama, even if it’s reticent about supporting Romney. Palin might speak on behalf of the Tea Party movement. But, in November, the Tea Party is already spoken for.
The Tea Party’s relationship with Romney is one of common interest. It could only truly break down over the selection of his running mate, or if it had reason to believe he would renege on his pledge to repeal Obama’s healthcare law. But, whether Romney wins or not, Palin will emerge in November with a handful of conservative Republican senators in Washington with her to thank for their seats. What currently matters to the Tea Party, however, is winning the biggest seat of all.
Ewan Watt is a Washington DC-based consultant. You can follow him on Twitter @ewancwatt