Peter Singleton and Michelle McCormick sat across the table from me at a Bennigan’s restaurant near the Des Moines airport, talking about their organizing efforts for Sarah Palin in Iowa and repeatedly referring to what would happen “when” the former Alaska governor declared her 2012 presidential candidacy. “If you want to get things going and be proactive, you’ve got to go where the starting shots are, and that’s Iowa,” McCormick said, while R&B oldies blared through the Muzak speakers and we waited for the waitress to bring our sandwiches. Singleton explained that they had no official affiliation with Palin’s political action committee and no communication with her staff. “We don’t ask them what they’re doing and they don’t tell.… We’re totally grassroots, all volunteers.”
It was Tuesday, August 9, four days before the Ames Straw Poll and two days before a nationally televised debate between eight Republican candidates, yet here were Singleton and McCormick talking about Palin, who was not one of those candidates and who, according to everyone who knows anything about presidential politics, had no intention of joining the2012 Republican primary field. “She’d be crazy to do it,” one of America’s most experienced political journalists had told me a month earlier, when I’d raised the possibility of Palin running. “She’s making big money with Fox. If she got in and lost to [Minnesota Rep. Michele] Bachmann, she’d be humiliated. No way.”
That was still the conventional wisdom on the Tuesday before the Iowa straw poll. All the respected experts were agreed, and yet there I was in Des Moines sitting at a restaurant table with the volunteer leaders of Iowa for Palin, who kept talking about “when” she would enter the race. This annoyed me. These two enthusiasts had left their homes — Singleton in California, McCormick in Texas — and moved to Iowa to volunteer as organizers for a non-existent campaign, on behalf of a make-believe candidate who kept saying she was “considering” a bid for the White House but who apparently had taken no concrete steps toward putting together a real campaign. By the time my two-hour conversation with Singleton and McCormick ended, I was convinced that they were hopeless dupes who had succumbed to the delusions of political True Believers. And the very next day, Sarah Palin announced she was coming to Iowa.
Palin’s visit to Des Moines was no sooner announced than it was dismissed by all the reputable pundits as a publicity stunt, a made-for-TV gesture intended strictly to “build her brand” and maintain her image as “relevant” to the political process as a Fox News commentator. With Texas Gov. Rick Perry set to enter the 2012 campaign later that week, the conventional wisdom said, there simply wasn’t room in the field for Palin and, after all, hadn’t she endorsed Perry in his 2010 GOP primary fight against Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison? Hadn’t Palin praised Perry as a candidate she could support for 2012? Wasn’t Perry often described as a “Palin ally”?
So said the wise men, the political wizards who get paid to analyze these things, but I was too busy covering the actual candidates — the ones who were, in fact, running for president — to give much thought to Palin, even if all those “whens” uttered by Singleton and McCormick were still stuck somewhere in my subconscious. GOP front-runner Mitt Romney made a rare Iowa visit the same Wednesday afternoon that Palin announced she was coming to town. Thursday was the big debate billed as the decisive showdown between Bachmann and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty. Friday, several of the candidates were scheduled to speak at the Iowa State Fair. It was at the fairgrounds, after I’d heard Herman Cain’s stump speech and watched Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz get heckled off stage by a disgruntled leftist, that I encountered a swarming crowd of people surrounding Sarah Palin.
Mildly annoyed again — I wasn’t there to cover a make-believe candidate whose name wasn’t going to be on the straw poll ballot Saturday at Ames — I elbowed my way into the scrum, holding aloft my cheap digital camera to snap a few photos and shoot a 49-second video clip of the throng around Palin. Let the reader imagine how my annoyance was intensified when I spotted a familiar face standing behind the non-candidate: Peter Singleton, smiling and giving me a thumbs-up gesture. At the time, I didn’t notice Michelle McCormick at Palin’s left elbow, but both of the Iowa for Palin organizers were part of the informal security detail escorting Palin around the fairgrounds as she signed autographs and posed for photos with her legions of admiring fans.
That was probably the moment when my annoyance turned to outright anger at the whole ridiculous spectacle, because here I was being sucked into the vortex of what for all the world looked like a cheap stunt, a reality-TV simulacrum of a presidential campaign. However, no one can express skepticism about Palin’s presidential ambitions without being targeted for the venomous attacks that the True Believers reflexively unleash on the Beltway elitists of the “lamestream media,” a category large enough to encompass everyone except Sean Hannity, Greta van Susteren and the other Fox News colleagues who enjoy exclusive access to their network’s star political commentator. It does no good to point out to the True Believers that I traveled to Ohio in September 2008 to proclaim Palin the “Sweetheart of the Heartland,” or stood in the bitter cold of a Pennsylvania evening among those who were “Stickin’ With the Hockey Mom.” No prior service to the Palinite cause — not my knocking down that silly divorce rumor in 2009, not my mocking of her media critics, nor even my visit with Todd Palin at his family’s Wasilla home last fall — can assuage the fury of the True Believers. She’s gonna run, they insist, and anyone who says otherwise is a hated enemy.
So I knew full well what I was getting myself into last week when I finally blew my top and excoriated the True Believers, dismissing their talk of a Palin 2012 campaign as “the naive babblings of chumps who’ve been bamboozled by a show-biz publicity stunt.” That was the same day a firestorm erupted over Quin Hillyer’s piece accusing Palin of acting like a “difficult diva” in a dispute with Daily Caller reporter Alex Pappas. Amid that “contretemps” (to borrow Quin’s description), I noticed something that everyone else seemed to be ignoring: Why should Sarah Palin be so concerned about a headline that mistakenly implied she had endorsed Mitt Romney? If she was just running a make-believe campaign to boost her ratings at Fox, couldn’t she have just shrugged it off? Was it possible that her phone call to Pappas signified that her prospective candidacy was more serious than any of the political wizards believed?
However faint a clue this was, there were many other clues that quickly appeared shortly after I declared my own final certainty that Palin was not running. There was, for example, a sort of “radio silence” from the tight circle of Palin’s staffers. And there was the looming date of September 3, when Palin was scheduled as keynote speaker at a Tea Party rally in Iowa. (Originally planned for Waukee, the site was shifted to Indianola to accommodate a larger crowd.) Hadn’t Palin previously said she was looking at September as the fish-or-cut-bait month for her to decide on a campaign? What could be a more perfect occasion than an Iowa speech to a massive heartland throng — a “Tea Party Woodstock,” someone has called it — the Saturday before Labor Day? She would own the news cycle all weekend, instantly becoming the Number One topic on all the Sunday shows, and her entry into the 2012 field would overshadow the September 7 debate at the Reagan Library in exactly the same way that Perry’s entry had overshadowed the Ames straw poll.
By Tuesday evening, then, I was half-convinced that Palin was stealthily moving toward an announcement. Then on Friday, she released a two-minute online video about her Iowa trip that everyone — even the wizards who had previously been certain she wasn’t running — agreed looked like an honest-to-goodness campaign ad. The signals seemed clear enough that Karl Rove (who is clearly no Palin fanboy) declared she now “looks like a candidate, not a celebrity” and expressed his belief that Palin will get into the race. But if a certified Beltway elitist like Rove is now convinced she’s running, wouldn’t Palin be obliged to prove him wrong by not running? So I called up McCormick to ask if she believed that an announcement was in the works for the September 3 “Restoring America” rally, and the Iowa for Palin volunteer wasn’t sure. “People think if [Palin’s speech] doesn’t say, ‘Hi, I’m Sarah Palin, I’m running for president,’ it will be not a good deal. But I really think she’s going to give a monster speech.”
The only two people who really know what Palin is planning, McCormick said, are Sarah and Todd. The rest of us will just have to wait until she announces. But her Iowa organizers are still convinced Palin is getting in — a matter of “when,” not “if,” they say. Others may doubt, but the True Believers still believe.