With the Iowa caucuses less than two weeks away, former Alaska governor and vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin has endorsed Donald Trump’s bid to become the Republican nominee for president. Palin and Trump are, in many ways, kindred spirits: both have a flair for self-promotion that would put P. T. Barnum to shame, and both have the habit of making outrageous statements that delight their supporters and horrify everyone else.
Given Trump’s signature disdain for “losers”, you’d think he’d be less effusive in his praise for Palin, a failed candidate and notorious mid-term dropout. But with the first caucuses primaries looming, her support could actually make a crucial difference.
Regardless of one’s view of Palin and her suitability for high (or any) office, she draws both big crowds and hysterical press attention. Her involvement in an event guarantees coverage, even if it’s not necessarily of the most flattering kind. Much of Trump’s success has been built on a template very similar to her own post-2008 style: a potent blend of old-style political populism and inflammatory outbursts on any number of sensitive issues.
In this regard, she may be able to do a rather better job for Trump than she’s ever done for herself. Whereas Palin’s dismal grasp of policy all but destroyed her national reputation even on the right, Trump so far seems largely immune to criticism for his endless gaffes – meaning Palin isn’t quite the liability she might be for any other candidate.
One of Trump’s key assets is his uncanny ability to all but monopolise the media’s attention. The nonstop media coverage of the Trump circus means that his rivals in the GOP have been starved of coverage. As a result their own messages, or attacks on Trump, haven’t necessarily received the coverage they normally would have.
Equally, Trump hasn’t had to spend millions of his own money buying airtime for political ads; at his every radical or offensive pronouncement, journalists come running. Palin only guarantees more coverage. For the next day or two everyone will be discussing her and Trump – another two days when his rivals won’t get the attention they desperately need.
And besides, for all that she’s now considered almost a fringe figure, Palin could still rally some crucial supporters to Trump’s madcap cause.
As things currently stand, his only main rival in Iowa and New Hampshire is Ted Cruz, the variously loved and loathed Texas senator who notoriously helped shut down the government for nearly three weeks in 2013. To win the nomination, both he and Trump must win over the same wings of the conservative base.
Until recently they kept their relationship fairly civil, each hoping that when the other falters or drops out, their supporters would happily come around. But with the race down to the wire, the gloves are coming off. Trump is now returning to his trademark practice of questioning other politicians’ American citizenship – this time a strategy targeted not at president Obama, but at Cruz, who was born in Canada.
This is where Palin could make a real difference. Despite years of media ridicule and Tina Fey’s immortal caricature on Saturday Night Live, she still has a significant base of support among the furious remnants of the Tea Party.
Her endorsement might help Trump win over hard-right conservatives sceptical of his historically inconsistent views on gun control and his weak grasp of various right-wing shibboleths. If she can only bring across 5% or so of undecided Republican voters or Cruz supporters, she could push Trump over the top.
That she is a proudly religious woman could also help persuade conservative Christian Iowans, who feel queasy about voting for a candidate who’s been married three times and who has struggled to convince them he’s a man of faith.
Trump and Palin supporters won’t be the only ones delighted by their meeting of minds. For many Democrats, this is a dream come true.
The other side is desperate for Trump to win the nomination. He’s currently succeeding by radically out-right-winging the rest of the Republican field on things like national security and immigration. This has dragged Trump’s rivals to the right as well, even to the extremes: former moderate standard-bearer Marco Rubio, for instance, has all but embraced Trump’s call to close mosques as part of a crackdown on Muslims.
Regardless of who wins the nomination, this will make it much more difficult for them to appeal to the crucial independent and centre voters who will decide the election. For everything Trump says or does that delights his fans, he alienates a large chunk of moderate Americans.
And while there’s no serious talk of a Trump-Palin ticket as yet, the very idea of it has the mainstream left salivating. It would be nothing short of a dream come true – and would virtually guarantees Hillary Clinton (or perhaps even Bernie Sanders) the key to the White House.