Sarah Palin is expected to make up her mind about a presidential campaign by the end of September, but it’s not clear it matters much either way. Polls show relatively few Republicans clamoring for a Palin run on a national level as the one-time supernova is eclipsed by a crowded presidential contest and an array of new rising stars. About two-thirds of Republicans say they’re satisfied with the current primary field.
It feels as if Palin’s fabled 2012 run, a source of fervent speculation since before the 2008 contest even ended, has already gone out with a whimper. Palin is polarizing even within her own party and has shown little indication she can reverse the nation’s long-settled perception of her as a media phenomenon with little appeal outside her limited fan base.
But how did she end up this way? And who is to blame? Here’s a look at five of the leading culprits.
The launching pad for Palin’s political career may have proved its undoing as well. Her abrupt exit from the governor’s office in 2009 freed her up to make millions as a speaker, author, and general celebrity, but all but destroyed any hopes of building up a credible resume for a presidential run. One poll taken after her resignation showed that even a majority of Republicans no longer felt she was qualified to be president, and she has struggled to reverse this broad consensus over the last two years. Palin’s favorable ratings with Alaskans cratered as well and never recovered, an embarrassing mark for someone who once prided herself on being one of the most popular governors in the country.
The Establishment GOP
Palin relishes her role as an outsider, going back to her days battling the “old boys’ network” of entrenched Republican officials in Alaska. Her willingness to buck party leaders dovetailed nicely with the rise of the insurgent Tea Party, but earned her the enmity of establishment Republican figures like Karl Rove, who has questioned her electability at every turn. It probably didn’t help that several of Palin’s favored “outsider” primary candidates in 2010, like Joe Miller and Christine O’Donnell, turned out to be general election train wrecks. Palin’s intra-party squabbles help explain why many Republican and Republican-leaning independents have been wary of her even as she’s cultivated a loyal and enthusiastic core of supporters.
Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann
One reason polls don’t show a groundswell of support for a Palin run is that other candidates have already taken over her obvious territory. If you want a hardcore religious right leader running on her personal family values while horrifying establishment Republicans, Michele Bachmann is happy to accommodate your needs. If you’re looking for a red-state governor with solid conservative credentials running on anti-elitist resentment, Rick Perry is ready and waiting. Perhaps you can make the case Palin paved the way for both of them to some degree, but either way it’s no longer clear what she brings to the table that the two don’t already have in spades.
Palin’s entrance on the national stage was heralded as an opportunity for the GOP to reach out to female voters, who traditionally lean Democrat in presidential elections. Instead, women have proven a weak spot for Palin. John McCain learned this the hard way in 2008 after his VP pick disproportionately turned off female voters despite a focused effort to pick up disaffected Hillary Clinton voters. Three years later, Palin still has the same problem against President Obama, even as his approval ratings have plummeted to record lows. A recent poll by Rasmussen shows him trouncing her 56%-29% among women, significantly better than his 50%-33% overall lead.
Ultimately, Palin has been her own worst enemy. Over and over she’s made costly unforced errors that have solidified her critics’ worst impressions of her while alienating potential supporters. The most disastrous — and illustrative — recent example was her response to the Gabrielle Giffords shooting in Arizona. Under intense scrutiny for her use of violent political imagery, Palin actually began to garner some public sympathy from unexpected corners as it became clear the alleged killer was motivated more by a deranged worldview than any coherent cause. But she instantly squandered it by releasing a tone-deaf video condemning a “blood libel” against her that only appeared more inappropriate after Obama delivered a moving speech focused on the individual shooting victims’ biographies later the same day. Palin’s popularity plummeted to new lows in the aftermath, but the episode did little more than confirm the already entrenched image of the ex-governor as a thin-skinned, rash, and divisive figure.
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Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.