Dispatch September 2008

The Palin Effect

Where grassroots delegates and professional operatives part ways

Count me among those impressed by Sarah Palin’s speech, but skeptical of its ability to persuade anyone outside the Republican base. The “Eagleton Scenario” certainly seems less plausible, but I don’t know that a McCain-Palin victory scenario is more so. This morning’s National Journal panel discussion with an array of Republican luminaries (and Chris Matthews) reaffirmed this impression.

In the last 18 hours, I’ve seen the Palin Effect on two very different groups of Republicans: grassroots delegates and professional operatives. Last night, I wormed right up front to the edge of the stage, where I figured the hardest-core activists would cram in to watch Palin, allowing for easy anthropological observation. They raved and seemed convinced she would put the ticket over the top. (The best line, whooped in my ear by a Kentucky delegate responding to Linda Lingle’s quip about how 250 Delawares could fit inside Alaska: “That’s right, baby, size matters!”)

Everybody at this morning’s panel discussion, on the other hand, thought Palin was great, but not the decisive factor that the activist crowd did. The clear consensus was that McCain needs to focus on independents. “He’s got to message himself to independents tonight,” said Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia. “He has to win independents, period,” said Sara Taylor, former White House political director. “He must be more focused on the center of the electorate than Bush was in ’04, and pull independents and conservative Democrats,” said Terry Nelson, McCain’s former campaign manager. In his own inimitable fashion, Chris Matthews seemed to concur: “If you guys want to be the war party, kiss it!”

The cutting tone of Palin’s speech did not come up during the discussion. But afterward, several of us approached the guests to ask about it. Like James Fallows, I have a hard time understanding how mockery attracts independents. For me, the evening’s most dissonant note—it ran through several of the speeches—was the mockery, by a campaign putatively devoted to glorifying public service, of Obama’s years as a community organizer. I didn’t get it. “In no way, shape or form was that intended to offend people,” Taylor said. “It was to draw a contrast, because they mocked [Palin’s] city council experience.” I left thinking that McCain still has a lot of work to do with independents.

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Joshua Green is an Atlantic senior editor.

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