It’s often said these days that Sarah Palin is a "media creation." That is, the media promote and elevate her as one of America’s most popular and influential leaders, even though her approval ratings remain in the tank, by covering every appearance and statement (whether speech or tweet) as if she is the Junior President from Alaska.
But the "creation" part goes well beyond what’s happened since the 2008 campaign to keep her constantly in the public eye. It’s my view that she was created by the media even before John McCain picked her as his Veep candidate.
It fact, it was exactly two years ago this week that a true (if rarely recognized) turning point in the 2008 race for the White House arrived. It came at the Democratic convention in Denver. No, it was not the good vibes about Obama, the ringing speeches by Teddy Kennedy, Michelle Obama, Bill and Hill, or by the candidate himself.
Rather, it was the electronic media’s overblown coverage of the allegedly widespread threat by female Hillary delegates, and other Clinton fans, to bolt Obama in favor of McCain that November.
As you may recall, the dissidents, known as "PUMAs," got massive face time on TV and, it was claimed by many in the media, represented just the tip of the iceberg. And it was also said (by commentators, not just by the new, pro-Hillary media stars) that women, particularly older ones and suburban/blue-collar types who had voted for Hillary in the primaries, would likely abandon the Democrats in November.
There was no firm evidence for this, of course, and few pundits, on TV or in print, seemed to notice that the same handful of disgruntled Hillary delegates appeared on all of the shows. No matter. Obama’s possible defeat because of the possible defections was widely predicted.
Why did this end up making any difference, since the mass female defections never happened?
Because John McCain and his people bought it, hook, line and sinker. This explains the sudden (though often ill-explained) rise of Sarah Palin to the top of their VP list. The McCainites saw an opening, which really wasn’t there, and went completely overboard. Not only did a female VP suddenly look like a great idea, but she would have extra appeal to the particular type of Hillary primary voters so hyped by the media.
The preposterous media coverage of the (few) unhappy Hillaryites at the Dem convention—which was aimed not at helping Obama but maintaining interest in the affair and the coming campaign—inspired McCain to select as his running mate someone who would virtually destroy his campaign.
Recall that after months of trailing, McCain came out of his convention with a bump that led to at least a tie with Obama in the polls—then he plummeted very quickly as the truth about Palin seeped out. In addition, he had lost his chief calling card: an edge in experience on Obama. A week after the GOP convention ended, polls were already showing that, if anything, women thought less of Palin than did men. CNN’s survey, for example, gave Obama a 50% to 36% edge over McCain, with only 13% of women saying they were more likely to vote for him because of Palin — and 11% reporting they were now less likely.
And surveys later showed that while she drew crowds she actually drove more people away from the GOP than toward it. In fact, it’s a myth that Palin was broadly "popular."
Imagine if McCain had picked even a neutral figure such as a Pawlenty or, say, Kay Bailey Hutchison. Yes, Obama still would have won (he ran a fine campaign and the economy collapsed). But if McCain hadn’t picked Palin, it might have been a real nail biter.
Also: Sarah Palin would still be a little-known political figure probably completing her first term as governor and with no boomlet for her as a candidate for president in 2012. And Tina Fey would have missed out on another career boost.
[For my new piece looking back at my first political convention–Chicago ’68–go here.]
Greg Mitchell’s book on the 2008 campaign is titled "Why Obama Won."