Why Palin Volunteers Should Quit, Whether She's Running or Not

Advocacy groups are just more reliable than politicians, and less likely to prove a total waste of time

sarah full in iowa.jpg

If Sarah Palin has already decided against running for president, is it callous of her to tacitly encourage the dozens of volunteers working to burnish her image? That's the "delicate question" posed by Scott Conroy after meeting some of them on a visit to Iowa. In a long dispatch from the Hawkeye State, he mentions Peter Singleton, considered by many to be the former Alaska governor's leading operative, despite the fact that he isn't officially affiliated with her, and Michelle McCormick, a 28-year-old Texas woman whose story makes me both hope and despair for the United States.

For McCormick, it all began with a letter:

An unassuming 28-year-old north Texan who works in the oil and gas industry, McCormick had experienced a family crisis similar to the one that had befallen Palin's family when the former Alaska governor's daughter Bristol became pregnant in 2008. McCormick wanted to let Palin know that how the vice presidential candidate handled the situation while in the national spotlight helped guide McCormick through her own family difficulties.

McCormick didn't harbor much hope that she would get a response, but about three weeks later she received a personal reply from Palin. Six months later, McCormick now spends every weekend (and an increasing number of weekdays) in the nation's first voting state of Iowa attending GOP Central Committee meetings, collecting names of activists in counties across the state, and doing other volunteer organizing in advance of a Palin presidential campaign that she considers inevitable. "If she was willing to take the time to respond to somebody who is a nobody in Texas, that just shows me what kind of heart she has," McCormick told RCP. "She's a very high-profile individual, and she's got a lot of people making demands on her, and I thought this is someone I really want to help get into the White House."

It always inspires hope to read about Americans who put forth great effort in attempts to improve the country we share. Were more citizens as proactive and civic-minded as McCormick it would be a better place. But I despair that every four years, so many people with an earnest desire to do good waste their energy on politicians who don't deserve it (which is to say, almost all of them). There are two or three people I know personally, all of them non-politicians, for whom I'd campaign if they ran for office. Despite playing closer attention to politics than most, however, I'd never get so excited about a stranger as to volunteer for months on their behalf.

Who can reliably tell if they're as they seem?

Career political operatives routinely misjudge the characters of the people for whom they work. So do voters, if their fickleness is any indication. And we're all wrong so often, even on the biggest questions. Many of you thought, circa 2000, that George W. Bush would eschew nation building when possible, and on inauguration day you didn't expect Barack Obama to wage unlawful wars of choice. It's no use trying to become a better predictor of future behavior either. You're no match for the political process. Those who succeed in it are some of the most adroit people in America at giving you the mistaken impression that their public persona is authentic.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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