Is Sarah Palin a new type of politician, or just a powerful celebrity?

Someone forwarded me a piece from The Nation today entitled “The Misunderestimation of Sarah Palin.” Author Melissa Harris-Perry raises the point that, while Democrats and many Republicans mock her, they are grossly underestimating her and her ability to build a following – the type of following you need to win elections.

My question is, does building a following equal winning elections? In my opinion, not necessarily.

Whether you agree with Sarah Palin’s politics or not, whether you like her personality or not, you have to give her this much – she knows how to get people to pay attention to what she has to say. Even if you think that her messages often lack substance (and I agree they often do), she knows how to get people to listen to her messages. Both of her books have been on the New York Times’ bestseller list. She has her own reality show. And she is far more adept than most politicians at using social media  to get attention and make news. In barely two years, she has gone from an unknown governor of one of the least populated states in the Union to a multimedia celebrity earning millions of dollars a year. As a communications professional, I give her a lot of credit for knowing her audience, knowing what she has to do to get people to pay attention and then executing it.

But being a celebrity is not the same as being a politician. Politics, for better or worse, is a popularity contest. You need to have a strong base behind you, to be sure. But you can’t equally antagonize the other side either. Just because people listen to what you have to say doesn’t mean they like what you have to say. This isn’t like radio or TV, where it doesn’t matter why your audience tunes in as long as it tunes in.

When Sarah Palin was Governor of Alaska, she was not the polarizing figure she has since become. Not coincidentally, her approval rating was over 80%. Even in a conservative state like Alaska, that doesn’t suggest a polarizing figure.

Even Ronald Reagan, whom Palin is often compared to because of their political views and unlikely roads to political prominence, was not polarizing. He was conservative, to be sure, but was more genteel and likeable. He didn’t come off as confrontational and mean-spirited. He skillfully framed his conservative views, so that even if you disagreed with some of the details, you still got behind his overall message. And people certainly didn’t loathe him the way Palin’s non-fans seem to loathe her.

If Sarah Palin is content to be a very wealthy celebrity who can influence Republican Primary elections, then she is definitely on the right course. And there is no shame in that. But if she really wants to be President, she needs to do more than get publicity. She needs to be less in-your-face and make sure people like her message, rather than just listen to it.

 

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