The selection of Sarah Palin as John McCain's running mate means Republicans have decided that wooing disaffected Clinton supporters is their best chance at retaining the White House.
It also underscores their desperation.
A former beauty queen, TV sports reporter, and mayor of an Alaskan suburb the size of Woodinville, Palin has been governor of the distant state of Alaska for less than two years. Famous for relying on flashcards at the gubernatorial debates, she has never before been in the national spotlight. And now the McCain campaign is reaping what she’s sown.
Palin has five children (distressingly named Trig, Track, Piper, Bristol, and Willow), who have in just a few days provided an entire campaign-worth of drama for the Republican ticket. The oldest, Track, is headed off to Iraq in September, so of course we heard about that right away. And the youngest, Trig, was born in April and was diagnosed with Down syndrome in utero; Palin’s decision to bring him to term anyway earned the ecstatic support of the anti-abortion crowd. Advanced maternal age is a well-established risk factor for Down syndrome, but persistent rumors that Palin hadn’t actually given birth to Trig (rumors that, in reality, the child belonged to Palin’s oldest daughter) led to the revelation Monday that the daughter—unmarried, 17-year-old Bristol—is currently 5 months pregnant. And oh, the irony: During her run for governor in 2006, Sarah Palin supported abstinence-only education. These family dramas, pitting public policy against private lives, ensure that John McCain's positions on abortion and abstinence-only education, and Palin’s own stances on those subjects, will become critical campaign issues. After all, there's hardly anything else known about Palin's views on issues of national importance.
As it happens, these issues are nonnegotiable for Hillary Clinton's base of middle-aged women supporters, and that dynamic alone makes it unlikely Palin will pull many of Clinton’s pro-choice, anti-abstinence-only backers to McCain’s side. Furthermore, it’s transparently condescending for the McCain campaign to think that Clinton voters, who over and over again cited Clinton’s experience as the reason to back her candidacy, would be swayed by a radically inexperienced vice-presidential nominee who just happens to be a woman.
Make no mistake. Hillary Clinton voters—and especially Hillary Clinton delegates, who spent thousands of hours and dollars to be in Denver for a type of historic nomination that wasn’t their first choice—are heartbroken.
It’s no surprise, then, that in sleep-deprived, alcohol-soaked Denver, they said and did things that, when picked up by the national media, may have given the McCain campaign the impression that their allegiance was up for grabs. Intense emotions rose rapidly to the surface in the Mile High city, as raw as the day during the primaries when Barack Obama won enough delegates to clinch the nomination.
At the first subcaucus meeting for Clinton delegates from Washington State on Monday night, Julie Johnson, of Neah Bay, told her fellow delegates she was in a bad way.
"It’s so hard for me to change my vote," Johnson said. "It's heavy. I feel like I'm grieving."
At the time, many of her fellow delegates were still debating whether to cast their roll call votes for Clinton or Obama, and in the end, they took their cues from one another. On Wednesday night, even as states like New Jersey wrangled a show of unanimous support for Obama, Washington State cast 26 votes for Clinton. Only one of her pledged delegates opted to switch to Obama.
But these convention moments of off-message Clinton support aside, every female Clinton delegate I spoke to in Denver said that she was using the convention as a way to transition between loyalty to her and support for Obama.
"I'm coming here supporting Hillary," Barbara Geller of Mercer Island told her fellow delegates at the subcaucus. "I'm leaving supporting Obama. I'm a party person."
On a park bench the day after Obama was named the Democratic nominee, Cheryl Adams, a Hillary Clinton delegate from Cashmere, Washington, explained her difficult emotional journey, which included casting her roll call ballot for Clinton.
“This is the most intense thing I’ve ever been involved in,” she told me. “I’ve been crying for like three days… So I feel very emphatic, I feel very happy about my decision. And, you know, it’s Obama from here on out.”
After Obama's speech Thursday night, Nadia Morgen, a Hillary Clinton delegate from Redmond, said reservedly, “He did well. It's still going to take me a little while to join the train, but I'm going to get there.”
So don't call the displays of emotion in Denver hysteria. These women were making rational decisions after a long, arduous, and painful process. Polling backs up their anecdotal reports. A New York Times poll of Clinton delegates before Joe Biden was even announced as the vice presidential nominee (and well before the Clinton's dramatic motion to nominate Barack Obama by acclamation during the roll call vote) found that only 5% were not ready to support Obama.
If McCain thinks that dangling an inexperienced, anti-choice woman like Palin in front of emotionally raw former Hillary supporters is going to bring them to his side in droves, he’s badly mistaken. And, frankly, the move is a bit insulting. Expressions of emotion don’t equal gullibility and, more to the point, Sarah Palin is no Hillary Clinton.firstname.lastname@example.org