Political Hay

The Miracle Worker

Sarah Palin lights the Republican fire.

By 9.8.08

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Eight weeks remain until Election Day and the final result is still anyone's guess, but in just 10 days, Sarah Palin has performed a political miracle.

The Alaska governor's selection as John McCain's running mate deprived Barack Obama of his most valuable asset -- the media limelight -- and even though coverage of her has been harshly negative, Palin produced the spark that finally ignited excitement among the disaffected conservative base of the Republican Party.

The most obvious evidence of the Palin effect is the polls, which have seen a huge swing toward the GOP since her convention speech Wednesday.

Saturday, Zogby reported McCain-Palin with a 50-46 percent lead over Obama and his running mate, Joe Biden. Sunday morning Rasmussen found the race a dead heat, and Gallup showed McCain pulling ahead 48-45 percent among registered voters -- "McCain's largest advantage over Obama since early May," Gallup noted. Late Sunday evening, a fresh round of polling from Gallup showed McCain had widened the margin to 4 points among registered voters -- and had a whopping 10-point lead (54-44 percent) among likely voters.

As important as the latest numbers were the trends the tracking polls revealed. Obama actually gained in the immediate wake of the Palin announcement, booming ahead by 8 points (Gallup) and 6 points (Rasmussen) as the media slammed the new Republican running mate. However, once America saw Palin speak for herself -- in a broadcast whose ratings nearly equaled Obama's own "Barackopolis" acceptance speech in Denver -- voters apparently surged toward the GOP.

Rasmussen reported that Palin was not only viewed more favorably than her Democratic counterpart Biden, but was more popular than either McCain or Obama.

THE STRONGEST GAIN appears to have been among the pro-life Christians who are a key constituency for Republicans, with Zogby noting that the McCain-Palin ticket had opened a double-digit advantage among Catholic voters.

Anecdotal evidence supports the poll statistics.

"It's a home run -- everybody's excited," one longtime social conservative activist said Sunday. "I talked to people at church today who said they'd been throwing away mail from the Republican Party...and now they say they're going to send money and get involved."

Granted, some conservatives were critical of McCain's choice. Charles Krauthammer said the Palin pick was "deeply problematic," while GOP strategist Mike Murphy was caught on an MSNBC open microphone calling Palin a "cynical" selection and predicting the pick was "not going to work."

McCain's choice of Palin has been frequently described as a "gamble." If so, it appears to be paying off. By choosing a relatively unknown and relatively inexperienced running mate, McCain set off an unpredictable series of ricochet effects.

In the immediate aftermath of the Palin announcement, Democrats seized on the argument that the Republican running mate was too inexperienced for the job. That attack came back like a boomerang, as Republicans responded that their No. 2 was at least as qualified as the Democrats' No. 1.

As a governor, she has little foreign policy background, but she visited Alaska National Guard troops in Kuwait last year and also visited wounded U.S. troops in Landstuhl -- a visit Obama famously failed to make in July. And her soldier son is due to deploy to Iraq this week.

Her status as an unknown generated intense interest in Palin, and conservative blogs saw a surge in traffic as voters turned to the Internet for information.

PERHAPS THE PALIN PICK was most effective in highlighting the Democratic schism produced by the long, bruising nomination battle between Obama and Hillary Clinton. Team Obama said Hillary would take to the campaign trail to help counteract Palin's potential appeal to women voters, but the Clinton camp didn't seem enthusiastic.

Hillary's first response to the Palin announcement was to issue a terse two-sentence statement, and last week, Clinton adviser Ann Lewis said: "She's not running against Sarah Palin, let's be clear. She is not on the ticket." Indeed she is not, and Obama, who narrowly beat her for the presidential nomination and then passed her over in favor of Biden as his running mate, can hardly depend on Hillary to bail him out of this fix.

And what a fix it is! Every attack on Palin seems to have backfired so far. Internet rumor-mongers had a field day (by Sunday, conservative blogger Charles Martin had listed 69 different Palin rumors), and yet her popularity increased. With Palin on the ticket, McCain attracted overflow crowds in excess of 10,000 at each stop Friday and Saturday in Wisconsin, Michigan and Colorado. Just three weeks earlier, by comparison, the Republican drew only 3,000 to a Pennsylvania rally.

Two months ago, Republicans were fighting against an attitude of "doom" among conservatives. Now, Democrats are in panic mode. "The Democrats are in trouble. Sarah Palin has totally changed the dynamics of this campaign," says Willie Brown, the former Democratic mayor of San Francisco.

HOW TO EXPLAIN this stunning reversal? Last week, liberals chuckled over a video of Palin speaking to a youth group at Wasilla Assembly of God, the church she attended as a child. Palin spoke of the "God's will" and asked the youth to pray "for an outpouring of God's spirit."

"Just be amazed...where God is going to send you," Palin said.

Such old-fashioned faith provokes laughter from liberals. Palin's miraculous effect on this campaign, however, makes it seem less likely liberals will still be laughing November 5.

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About the Author

Robert Stacy McCain is co-author (with Lynn Vincent) of Donkey Cons: Sex, Crime, and Corruption in the Democratic Party (Nelson Current). He blogs at The Other McCain.