Invisible Influence

Is Sarah Palin really as powerful as the media says?

Sarah Palin is unavoidable. Not content to take over our dreams, the former governor of Alaska has conquered the best-seller charts with her new memoir (even if her sales numbers have slipped slightly from their peak). And the media clearly still believes that she is a figure of considerable importance. The latest evidence of this esteem: Chris Cillizza, who writes the popular blog and column “The Fix” for The Washington Post, has now deemed her the most influential Republican politician. As Cillizza wrote in an online chat Friday, “There is a HUGE amount of interest (good and bad) in her in the country.”

That’s undeniable. But interest is not the same as influence, and evidence for Palin’s influence—now or in the future—is less apparent than you’d think. For a candidate whose great strength is supposedly her appeal to the conservative base, Palin has a surprisingly weak track record in actually winning contests that test support for the 2012 presidential nomination. When the Conservative Political Action Committee conducted a straw poll at its gathering in February, the clear winner was Mitt Romney; Palin finished in what was essentially a three-way tie for second. More recently, in a straw poll conducted at the Family Research Council’s Values Voter Summit, Mike Huckabee came out well ahead; this time, Palin essentially finished in a four-way tie behind the leader.

Those straw polls are imprecise measures at best, but the results were given some heft by a recent Rasmussen poll ranking possible GOP presidential candidates, in which Palin finished third among likely Republican voters; when the contest was restricted to head-to-head matchups, she finished well behind both Romney and Huckabee. As Tom Schaller notes, she is not just losing, “she is losing to two candidates from very different parts of the GOP coalition.” That may be because, according to Rasmussen, one-fifth of likely Republican primary voters say she is their least-favorite candidate. It’s extremely early, so even polling data should be taken with a grain of salt, but there’s precious little indication that Palin is the preferred choice of the Republican base.

Of course, there are ways to be influential without actually winning elections, or even running in them. Palin’s recent endorsement of a conservative third-party candidate in a closely watched New York congressional race seems like a test of how many votes her words can sway, and the outcome there will be an interesting data point. But whatever the result, there are reasons to be skeptical about Palin’s long-term role in shaping any movement, whether she casts her lot with hopes for a Republican resurgence or with some sort of splinter conservative faction.

That’s because networks and institutions remain at the core of practical politics, and she has shown little capacity to work with either. Palin burned bridges with the Republican Party in Alaska, and her endless feuding with the McCain operation was one of the running themes of the campaign. Now a free agent, cut loose from ideologically inconvenient connections and free to build her own operation, she has come up with… a Facebook page. Even in our disintermediated age, when politicians can connect with voters more directly than ever before, infrastructure matters; politics is still the strong and slow boring of hard boards. There is nothing in Palin’s background to suggest that sort of patience.

The peculiar thing about journalists’ continued emphasis on Palin is that they know all this about her. In the Web version of his rankings, Cillizza wrote, “Palin’s political operation is nonexistent and she seems entirely uninterested/unable to capitalize politically from the amount of interest she generates.” That’s absolutely true—but it undercuts the claim made in the very same column about Palin’s influence on the future direction of the party. Influence can’t be greater than the tools through which it is implemented; if those tools are lacking, it doesn’t exist. All the book sales in the world won’t change that.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.