At this point, no one can know the full effects of Sarah Palin. Initial reception was shocked and more than a bit contemptuous; the reception to her speech was as rapturous as the earlier reaction dumbfounded. But, in the end, my guess is that the 2008 election will be the 2004 election run again—for considerably better results this time around.
What each campaign learned from 2004 was strikingly different: Obama’s campaign has duplicated Bush’s campaign’s insistence on branding and organizing; McCain’s has stressed the media cycle and base polarization to almost comical degree. At first it looked like Sarah Palin’s selection was motivated most by the demands of the media cycle: she was fresh and novel and she pushed all of the right media buttons. This plays a large role in their selection, certainly, but I think the second concern—base polarization—has played the largest role.
Consider for instance Palin’s cracks about community organizing versus the mayor’s jobs and the Scranton v. San Francisco comments. These cracks reprise the culture wars that Republicans have played into for the last few years. Indeed, the crack about community organizing—that community organizers have no responsibilities—makes no sense (shouldn’t Republicans celebrate individual gumption versus uncaring bureaucrats?) except when viewed through the perspective that that’s something city people do, and Republicans aren’t city people.
So Palin has taken one side of the culture wars—I’m for you, she says, against those contemptuous cultural elites, the ones who make fun of your accents, who think you’re dumb, who look down on your way of life—leaving Obama, however reluctantly, to the other (for he knows that waiting for the culture wars to finish is waiting for an epoch to pass; instead, why not try to cut the Gordian knot?). Though Democrats have the most to gain from declaring a truce to the culture wars, it does not follow that the ongoing culture wars permanently obliterate Democratic chances. The Obama campaign expects to raise $10 million in a day, for instance. Money isn’t how score is kept in politics, to be sure, but it is an interesting thing to contemplate. Besides, the territory has shifted since 2004—Republicans comprise a much smaller portion of the electorate; Democrats much larger—and so Republicans have a smaller base to build upon. Add to that Obama’s edge in organizing—he has fifty field offices in Indiana to McCain’s three!—and you see that the game McCain is playing is likely a losing one.
So why do it then? Well, it mixes up the race and throws it into chaos. It is a “flight forward”: it is where, in a contest, one side decides that it cannot win the game as it is being played and so decides to make an aggressive, risky move in order to win. Classic examples include Hitler invading Russia and Napoleon invading Russia. All or nothing. Hail Mary pass. We’ll double down on the only narrative we know, says the Republicans. Unfortunately it ends up undermining McCain’s alleged, once-strong brand: moderate maverick who works with everyone. But this may not matter; if Obama does not handle the situation correctly and carefully, he will lose. Otherwise, he will win.