Byron York: Does Sarah Palin still matter in presidential politics?
In September, when Donald Trump appeared before a giant rally in Dallas, a person in the Trump circle described the coming months of the campaign. Sure, a big event like Dallas got headlines, but Trump knew he couldn’t do the same rally, rally, rally for the next several months and expect the public to remain interested. Even then, TrumpWorld was planning a varied (and secret) schedule of special events, bold policy rollouts and other attention-getting gestures to keep the voters’ and the media’s attention over the course of a long campaign.
A recent night in Ames was a prime example of Trump’s timing and showmanship. Bringing Sarah Palin to Iowa grabbed all eyes in the Republican caucus race. And it seriously undercut the notion, growing in some political circles, that GOP rival Ted Cruz has nailed down the support of all of Iowa’s conservatives.
Palin, whose last highly publicized visit to Iowa was a poorly received speech at Rep. Steve King’s candidate summit in January 2015, was her most Palinesque self. Discussing who is and who is not a conservative, for example, she said, “How about the rest of us? Right-winging bitter clinging, proud clingers of our guns, our God, our religions and our Constitution …” That’s classic Sarah.
But Trump was happy to have Palin for more reasons than her ability to entertain a crowd. Even though she is much diminished from her heyday a few years ago, Palin still has influence among some conservatives. Trump now has that on his side, and just as important, Cruz doesn’t.
At the rally I talked with Jamie Johnson, a veteran Iowa politico who supported Rick Santorum in 2012 and Rick Perry earlier in this race, but is now unaffiliated. Johnson saw the Palin move entirely in terms of persuading voters at the margins of the Trump vs. Cruz contest.
“I think the Palin endorsement is important for all of the tea partiers who were deciding which of the two they were going to vote for,” Johnson said.
Does Palin still have clout in Iowa?
“To tea partiers, she does.”
“How big a part of the electorate is that?”
“Probably 15 to 20 percent of the people who caucus. I’d say 15 to 20 percent would identify themselves as tea partiers more than anything else, such as born-again evangelicals.”
“And you would expect that some of them are caught on the fence now between Trump and Cruz?”
“I know for a fact that they are,” Johnson replied. “I’ve talked to several people in the last two months who have been on the fence between Trump and Cruz. So if they’re on the fence, this might be just enough to push them over.”
Indeed, at Trump and Cruz events in the last two weeks, I have met plenty of people who were for Trump, with Cruz as their second choice, or were for Cruz, with Trump as their second choice. For some of them, Palin’s seal of approval might make some difference. Before she spoke, I asked several people at the Ames rally whether Palin had worn out her welcome; none thought she had.
“It’s a valuable endorsement because people still view her as an anti-establishment outsider who they can also relate to,” said Craig Robinson, a former Iowa state GOP political director who founded the Iowa Republican blog. “And if there is any strategy to the Trump campaign, it is to dominate the media coverage of the race, and Palin’s endorsement will certainly help with that.”
That’s an understatement. Palin’s appearance with Trump immediately captured nearly all the media’s attention. In the hours and days that followed, it inspired impassioned debate, made talking heads explode, and caused fevered speculation across cable TV.
And for Cruz, there is one final, indirect effect of Palin’s Trump endorsement. In the days ahead, the Cruz camp is left to wonder what Trump has coming up next.
“He has to have another couple of tricks up his sleeve before the caucuses,” said one Cruz supporter recently. The problem is that Team Cruz doesn’t know what those tricks are. They’ll find out when Trump wants them to.
Byron York is chief political correspondent for The Washington Examiner.
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