We all love a bit – well, more than a bit – of Sarah Palin bashing. When we hear of Palin in the UK, it tends to be because she has launched another scathing attack on Barack Obama. And we see a crowd utterly captivated by her word and a terrifying thought crosses our mind: this woman is, somehow, going to be the next President of the United States. Quite how can this be so?
But it ain’t so. It may sit uncomfortably with the way in which Palin is typically portrayed here – as the most influential current Republican – but her political career could well be toast. Almost every month her approval ratings reach their apparent nadir – only to get even worse. They now put her on roughly the same standing as President Nixon during his final, disgraced days in office. Amongst possible candidates for the Republican nomination in the 2012 presidential election, she often comes fifth in opinion polls, with support barely reaching ten percent. And in match-ups with Obama, Palin fares significantly worse than other potential Republican candidates.
Palin’s insurmountable problem is simple. As Americans know her more, they like her less, as her views are exposed to analysis that leads to ridicule. Moreover, Palin has not helped herself. Resigning her post as Governor of Alaska in 2009, saying her constant need to legally defend herself from ethical charges was undermining her ability to do her job, badly damaged her credibility as a serious politician. If she could not last a full term in Alaska, could she be trusted to be President of the United States?
Then there were her comments after the attempted assassination of Arizona House of Representatives member Gabrille Giffords in January. Palin was accused of helping to incite the attack, after she had earlier used her website to put ‘bullseye’ icons on “Obamacare-lovin’ incumbent seats” – including that of Giffords. In a speech after the attack, which resulted in six dead, she launched a counter-attack on her critics. The tone was more political than statesmanlike, and seemed more concerned with her critics than her victims. Her use of the loaded term “blood libel” (associated with anti-Semitism) showed Palin at her über-tribal worst. A viable head of state she certainly did not appear.
Palin often seems unwilling to tolerate those who disagree with her views. While she both appears on Fox News and gives speeches regularly, she is clearly much happier when her words don’t face challenge, and she seldom comes off well from question-and-answer sessions. The influential right-wing talkshow host Bill O’Reilly – previously sympathetic to Palin – has criticised her several times, saying: “she’s not engaging directly. When I had her on this program, I asked her some specific questions she didn’t want to answer. She wanted to give a speech, this that and the other thing.” This is seen as emblematic of a lack of political courage – a major deficiency in any potential President. Moreover, these traits risk Palin being a caricature of herself, in quasi-political irrelevance as a figure only willing to preach to the converted. If serious about running in 2012, she would be wise to engage with a much broader range of opinions. If she were really brave she would do interviews with media bodies that weren’t right- wing, but Palin has shown no inclination to do so.
Palin’s problems mean she is not capitalising on a thoroughly mediocre set of potential challengers for the GOP 2012 nomination – one so uninspiring that Donald Trump is leading polls. ‘Marmite’ political figures can win presidential elections, as George W Bush and Bill Clinton proved. But in order to do so they need to be able to unite their party – something Palin, disliked even by many Republican voters, conspicuously cannot do.
So deep are her troubles that she is no longer even such a Tea Party favourite. Even amongst self-described ‘Tea Party supporters’, to whom she should appeal to above all, she has a miserable 12 percent of support. Others, like Minnesota’s Michele Bachmann, now provide glamour and love for guns. Bachmann has the advantage of being much less divisive than Palin – partly because she’s much less known.
To a degree, Palin has been misfortunate too. Her social conservatism, her real raison d’être, seems less relevant when economic issues so dominate the political discourse. Palin has long been exposed as no economics expert; with around 70 percent of voters considering this the most important issue, Palin’s deficiencies are damaging. In this area, too, she has no unique selling point: her fiscal conservatism differentiates little from other Republicans.
Satirists will not get their wish: Palin will never be President. Her high ceiling of support isn’t enough to be a serious White House contender: too many will never vote for her. Barring a political reinvention that seems utterly incompatible with her beliefs, this problem won’t go away. I’m not even sure she’ll run, knowing she can make more money, avoid intense levels of scrutiny and retain her ‘brand’ image – which would be so damaged by a humiliating defeat – not doing so.