A Word From Afar: Palin Frames the Race
A Word From Afar is a regular column that analyses political/strategic/international interest.
The introduction of Sarah Palin into the US presidential race has simplified the equation for victory. She has acquitted
herself in her first mainstream media interviews, and she looks to be committed to the long haul. In doing so she has
sharpened the lines of division between the two parties and raised the intensity of the campaign. She will be the
decisive factor in the November elections, win or lose.
By nominating Governor Palin, the Republicans attacked the Democrat’s greatest source of electoral strength and,
paradoxically, their major source of weakness: working women. With Hillary Clinton in the running for the Democratic
nomination, or at least on the ticket as a Vice Presidential candidate, the Democrats could be assured of the working
female vote. When she was defeated in the primaries and not offered (or did not accept) a place on the Democratic
ticket, the field was opened to the Republicans. That is because working women come in many guises, which for the
purposes of argument shall be dichotomized here into “liberals” and “conservatives”.
Nominating Sarah Palin capitalized on two sources of Democratic weakness that were a product of their own primary
battles. They do not have a “hockey mum” nor do they have a Washington “outsider” on their ticket. Instead, they have
two male US Senators, one new and the other old, as their candidates. Each has major liabilities—Joe Biden is the
consummate insider and gaffe prone; Barack Obama has less than two years of national-level political experience.
Conversely, although John McCain may indeed be old and part of the Washington scene, and Palin may be inexperienced in
Washington ways, he reaffirmed his maverick reputation by choosing a moose-hunting first term female governor who is
raising four children of school age (a fifth has just deployed to Iraq with the US Army), believes in biblical prophecy,
the right to bear (several) arms and that abortion is a crime. She has an unwed pregnant daughter and a part time
commercial fisherman, oil wildcatter, card-carrying union member husband who shoots things and rides snowmobiles for
sport. With her selection McCain covered all of the Republican bases and added a magnet for disgruntled working women
unhappy with Hillary Clinton’s dismissal from the presidential race.
Governor Palin’s selection as vice presidential candidate split the “working mum” vote. Conservative-minded (mostly
white, but also Hispanic) working mums have flocked to her side, viscerally identifying with her success story in
work/life balance while upholding traditional Judeo-Christian values. She places family on a par with career and meshes
them well in concert with the man she married almost 30 years ago as a teenager.
Liberal working moms may find this story unconvincing, but the reality is that the Democrats have no counter to it.
Hilary Clinton is seen as someone who put career first and whose family life reflects that choice. Conservative working
women do not find semblance in her life. On issues of social policy, liberal women may not vote for Mrs. Palin, but they
can only support Obama in numbers if he adopts Mrs. Clinton’s agenda. His attacks on her during the primary campaign and
her absence on the ticket make that a difficult proposition. Moreover, attacking Governor Palin on her life choices and
perceived inexperience is seen as petty, sexist and mean, which invites a potential backlash from undecided female
It might well transpire that Governor Palin will come unstuck under the light of media scrutiny and partisan critiques
of her public service record. Perhaps her socially conservative views will prove too much for many voters. Allegations
of nepotism and personal malfeasance in the abuse of office have already surfaced against her. But in announcing her
selection less than 60 days before the general election and keeping her media appearances to a select minimum,
Republican campaign strategists can repudiate attacks on her record as “smears” born of partisan hatred and deep-rooted
jealousy of a “real” working mum (unlike female Washington insiders such as Hillary Clinton and House Leader Nancy
Pelosi). By the time any real truth surfaces on what Mrs. Palin did or did not do while in mayoral and Gubernatorial
office, or what she really believes, the election will be over.
The genius in Governor Palin’s selection is that it reduces the contest for the Electoral College—the ultimate
determinant of presidential elections short of the Supreme Court--to a handful of rural and semi-rural states in the US
Midwest. The Electoral College vote is a winner-take all contest that disproportionately advantages rural states on a
per-capita basis. This was the intention of the architects of the US federal election system, who distrusted the
intelligence of the urban lower classes when confronting election year promises. They consequently designed a second
tier ratification mechanism—the Electoral College—that gave more voting weight to rural constituencies than urban ones.
Although urban states still have the largest numbers of voters and Electoral College votes, it is relatively
under-populated states like Iowa, Nevada, Colorado, the Dakotas, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Missouri and New Mexico
that in aggregate play a decisive role in determining the outcome of presidential contests. Ohio and Virginia also have
much of these attributes (in terms of rural-urban distribution), although they have a higher urban concentration than
the other electorates (in other words, the rural-urban balance is reversed). But the important point is that all of them
are in play. That is the key to Republican success in 2008 because these are states in which many “hockey mums” and
conservative working women reside, and are states whose voters have a visceral distaste for the federal government and
the coastal elites that run, support and benefit from it.
The outcome elsewhere is decided: Blue (Democratic)-leaning states like New York, Massachusetts, Illinois and California
will go to the Democrats and Red (Republican)-leaning states such as Arizona, Alabama, Texas and Idaho will go to the
Republicans. The South and West tend to go Red and the Northeast and Mid Atlantic states lean Blue. At present count,
the Obama/Biden ticket has a nominal 11 elector advantage over McCain/Palin (the Democrats have 238 electoral college
votes to 227 for the Republicans).
Yet there are at least a dozen so-called “swing” states in which partisan preference is not certain. Virginia and Ohio
are the most important of them, but with 50 Electoral College votes up for grabs (with the winning threshold being 270),
most of them in rural and semi-rural states, the nomination of Sarah Palin has apparently tilted the race for the
Electoral College vote in favour of the Republicans. That has forced the Democrats to reinvigorate their campaign
efforts in swing states, and their focus is, like the Republicans, on middle aged, working females. It has come down to
a race for that constituency.
Like 2000, the Republicans might lose the popular vote, but they will have the numbers in the Electoral College to
secure victory if they win the majority of those undecided rural and semi-rural states. Working mums are a decisive
component of the electorate in those states. Plus, they have a conservative Supreme Court as a trump card with which to
adjudicate any disputes about the Electoral College vote. The outcome in 2000 (when the Electoral College went for
George W. Bush while the popular vote favoured Al Gore) is a precedent in this regard.
The 2008 US presidential election is historic for many reasons. Not only is there an African-American vying for the
presidency and a woman on the Republican ticket. Not only is the US at a crisis point in its political and economic
development. The most historic aspect of this election is that for the first time it will be working women who decide
the outcome no matter who wins. Whatever her flaws, we have Sarah Palin to thank for that.
Paul G. Buchanan studies comparative strategic thought. He was formerly an analyst and consultant to several US