In a sober examination of the latest trends in political campaign financing, the New York Times recently described how Mitt Romney is taking advantage of state-level political action committees in New Hampshire and beyond to help finance his expected run for president in 2012. Romney’s maneuvering was portrayed as legal and savvy, the latest way for 21st-century politicians to raise big bucks in order to win support in early-voting states.
But if you think Romney comes into the 2012 race with some big advantage, you clearly haven’t tuned into Sarah Palin’s Alaska, the weekly reality show starring the former governor on the TLC network. (There’s another episode tonight.) We caught her act last Sunday evening – including a segment in which she clubbed an enormous halibut in the head after it was hauled onto the deck of a fishing boat in Homer. Our immediate reaction: Wow.
This show, like many of Palin’s forays into the media, has the potential to mute the impact of New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation presidential primary. That’s a concern for voters of all stripes who swear by the state’s unique brand of grassroots campaigning that forces candidates to meet real voters, one by one by one, a prickly vetting process that either exposes them as unprepared or strengthens them for the campaign ahead.
It’s not as if there haven’t been rock-star candidates in New Hampshire before. The early crowds for Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, for instance, were enormous. But even they were forced to prove themselves to actual voters and financial contributors. Palin’s nomination strategy could be entirely different.
The TLC show, part of a regular lineup that includes a show about a mom with eight children and another about a husband with four wives, is pure infomercial for Palin. In last week’s episode, her daughter Bristol looked straight into the camera to tell viewers about her mom’s amazing work ethic. Palin herself extolled the virtues of getting your hands dirty (in the guts of a fish), of making time for family and for outdoor adventure. She was seen racing husband Todd in a kayak and cooking up the aforementioned halibut over an open fire amid a spectacular Alaska backdrop.
Were Tim Pawlenty or Newt Gingrich interested in presenting a similar hour-long, high-def introduction of themselves to prime-time TV viewers, the cost would be prohibitive. (Imagine the cost for eight Sundays in a row!) Palin is being paid for the pleasure.
The Republican establishment is pooh-poohing the Palin circus. The TV show and the tweeting and the Fox News appearances, they say, prove that Palin lacks the seriousness to run for president. But their disdain just plays into her populist shtick.
It’s possible that Palin isn’t running for president – that she’s just enjoying the celebrity and financial reward of her moment on the public stage. But until she makes that clear, the earnest policy wonks hoping to win the GOP nod in a more conventional way have much to be worried about.