It’s been a busy week for Sarah Palin.
Fresh off a round of endorsements in Republican primaries, she appeared on “The Tonight Show,” where she gabbed with Vladimir Putin, as played by host Jimmy Fallon; broke the Reagan rule (again!) by criticizing fellow former GOP vice presidential nominee Rep. Paul Ryan over his latest budget; and stumped in Georgia for underdog Senate candidate Karen Handel, who is the only female Republican in the primary race.
There she was in full mama grizzly mode, claiming the just-plain-folk high road, slamming Handel’s opponent David Perdue for his disparaging comments about Handel’s high school-level education, caught on tape during a closed-door fundraiser.
“Nothing was handed to her on a silver platter,” Palin said, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “There are a lot of good, hard-working Americans who have more common sense in their pinky finger than a lot of those Ivy League pieces of paper up on a wall.”
Oh, and she also debuted her second reality show, “Amazing America with Sarah Palin,” on the Sportsman Channel, which has the tagline “Red, Wild and Blue” and has dubbed Palin the first lady of the outdoors.
It’s tempting to think of this spate of Sarah Palin appearances everywhere (on social media, too), as a comeback. But, thing is, Palin hasn’t ever really gone anywhere since she went from being a complete unknown to an American obsession in 2008. Like no other figure in American pop and political culture (The Fix calls her a celebritician), Palin has shown a remarkable ability to stay top of mind, maintaining a role in the Beltway conversation while staying very far away.
She has built herself this unusual platform on three main planks: social media, reality television and her political action committee, SarahPAC.
She The People reached out to Robert Thompson, a pop culture expert, to get his take on Palin. He likened her to Will Rogers, a liberal vaudevillian who mixed down-home tastes with political critiques.
Thompson, who heads the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University, called Palin a “really accomplished performance artist.”
“She is still just really fun to watch. Some are watching because they admire, and others are watching because they find her hilarious because she is a self parody and there aren’t too many people who can manage to be both of things. Some are seeing her as an important figure in American public life and others see her as a jester and that’s how she keeps getting TV shows,” Thompson said. “The people who love her love to watch her, the people who really don’t love her, love to watch her. It’s mock watching, and that’s what keeps American culture afloat now.”
“If I were going to give an Emmy for best person who has run for president or vice president on a comedy show, I would give it Palin,” Thompson said of the “Tonight Show” performance with Fallon. “It was funny, it was charming, even though at times it was awkward. That combination is the recipe for the Sarah Palin equation.”
Palin’s Facebook and Twitter accounts have become favored media for the former vice presidential candidate, who has posted missives on everything from foreign policy to the economy for her followers (4 million on Facebook, 1.05 million on Twitter) to read.
Just this week, after the release of Paul Ryan’s budget, Palin weighed in via Facebook, her “print” outlet of choice, calling the document the “definition of insanity.”
“The latest Ryan (R, Wisconsin) budget is not an April Fool’s joke,” Palin wrote. “But it really IS a joke because it is STILL not seeing the problem; it STILL is not proposing reining in wasteful government overspending TODAY, instead of speculating years out that some future Congress and White House may possibly, hopefully, eh-who-knows, take responsibility for today’s budgetary selfishness and shortsightedness to do so.”
Ryan, notably mentioning that he is a “big fan” of Palin, responded a day later on Fox News, suggesting “she ought to take a look at the details” and saying that he thought “she’d probably be pretty pleased” if she did.
“If she liked what we were doing before, she should like what we’re doing here,” he said, noting that Palin had backed his previous budgets.
Unlike many of her male counterparts, Palin has so far resisted the urge to run for president despite her popularity with her party’s right wing. Instead, she has opted to use her political influence to endorse candidates. Her record is mixed.
Of the 64 candidates she endorsed in 2010, 33 won. In 2012, Palin contributed about $300,000 to candidates, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
In 2014, she has endorsed 10 candidates, including Handel, according to SarahPAC’s Web site. Two, Rep. Jason Smith (R-Mo.) and congressional candidate and former Bogota, N.J., Mayor Steve Lonegan, have received $5,000 each from SarahPAC as of the March filing deadline.
One candidate, Katrina Pierson, lost her challenge to Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas) last month.
Palin has also backed Joni Ernst, the only woman in the GOP primary Senate race in Iowa, a state that has never elected a woman to statewide office.
Ernst said: “As our campaign builds energy toward a primary win in June, Sarah Palin’s roaring support will help me to victory, and as a result, make ’em squeal in Washington.”
But how much does such an endorsement matter? The Palin effect, like other endorsements, is hard to measure, but Palin’s place in the Republican landscape is clear, and her platform can bring the kind of attention that is nearly unparalleled.
“Palin matters because she’s still a rock star to the conservative grass roots. She has a combination of chutzpah and charisma that is lacking in the vast majority of GOP household names,” said Steve Deace, a conservative radio host in Iowa. “There are divided opinions about whether she’s a rock star OR a standard-bearer, or a rock star AND a standard-bearer. I know very few people in national conservative politics that believe Palin will ever be a candidate for public office again.”
Still, that didn’t stop the chants of “Run, Sarah, run” when Palin delivered a barn-burner of a speech at the Conservative Political Action Committee’s gathering in March.
“I should. I didn’t get to go run this morning,” she shot back, toying with the idea while not rejecting it outright.
Thompson said that Palin’s skill set is often underestimated, adding that she has political savvy and knows how to play a room.
“Her grand plan is being sophisticatedly pursued,” he said. “Now there is a sense that she is playing a long-term set of strategies.”