The 2008 United States presidential election was a historical series of events, in more ways than one. The U.S. elected its first black president. On the opposite side of the aisle, vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin heralded the future of U.S. politics: personality-driven outsider politicians, later seen prominently in the case of Donald Trump.
Born Sarah Louise Heath in Sandpoint, Idaho on February 11, 1964 to a science teacher, Charles Heath, and his wife, also named Sarah, a secretary, Palin is the third of four children. When she was less than a year old, her family relocated to Skagway, Alaska. After moving to Eagle River in 1969, the Heaths eventually settled in Wasilla in 1972, when Palin was eight.
In high school, she helped lead the girls’ basketball team to the state championships in 1982, earning the nickname ‘Sarah Barracuda’ for her ferocity as a point guard. “She was always a leader and led by example,” teammate Amy Backus was quoted as saying in an NBC Sports article from October 2008. “She always worked very hard, whether it was at practice or a game. She was very disciplined. You could always rely on her. She was always very consistent.” Palin also ran cross country in high school. In 1984, she won the Miss Wasilla beauty pageant, and proceeded to finish third in the Miss Alaska pageant, where she received the title of ‘Miss Congeniality’.
Palin crisscrossed the country during her college career, attending five schools in five years. She didn’t stand out as a college student. Palin ultimately went back to Idaho to finish college, graduating with a degree in communications from the University of Idaho in 1987. She then began to work as a sportscaster for two Anchorage television stations, KTUU-TV and KTVA-TV. Palin also reported on sports for the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman.
Palin eloped with her high school sweetheart Todd Palin in August 1988. Their first child, Track Cj, was born in April 1989. Four more children followed in later years: daughters Bristol, Willow, and Piper, and second son Trig. Palin opposes same-sex marriage, is a Life Member of the NRA, and supports teaching creationism along with evolution in schools, according to a 2006 Alaska governor debate. She has been a registered Republican since 1982. According to a August 2008 interview with Time, Palin considers herself to be a “Bible-believing Christian.”
After her marriage, Palin assisted in her husband’s commercial fishing business. In 1992, she was elected to the Wassila City Council. Four years later, she launched a successful campaign to become that same city’s mayor, starting the campaign because she felt that a sales tax would not be spent wisely. As mayor, she oversaw the city’s public works projects and police force. Her major victories included cutting property taxes, putting more money into public safety, and raising the city sales tax to support a sports complex and indoor ice rink. The city’s debt grew during that time, primarily because of the sports complex project. Palin served through 2002, which constituted two terms.
Palin ran for the nomination for lieutenant governor in 2002, losing to Loren Leman. Frank Murkowski and Leman eventually won that election, and Murkowski offered Palin other jobs. She eventually accepted an appointment as the chair to the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commision, saying she wanted to learn more about the oil industry. Before Lisa Murkowski took over her father’s Senate seat (when he resigned to take up the governorship), Palin seemed a possible choice. Palin resigned as commision chair in January 2004, citing fellow commision member Randy Reudrich’s lack of ethics as her primary reason. In 2004, when the Senate opportunity came up again, this time to run against Lisa Murkowski for the seat, Palin’s eldest son Track Cj reportedly asked her not to run, and so she didn’t.
In 2006, Palin ran for governor, beating Tony Knowles on a platform of reform and new leadership. She became the youngest governor in Alaska’s history at age 42, as well as the first female governor. For the majority of her term, Palin was very popular with Alaska voters. She campaigned for ethics reform, with infrastructure, education, resource development, and public health and safety serving as more of her major issues.
Before Palin was governor, in 2005, Congress passed an omnibus spending bill that gave $442 million to Alaska for two bridge projects. The first, titled the Gravina Island Bridge, was meant to connect the small city of Ketchikan with the Ketchikan airport on Gravina Island, and was given $233 million to complete. Since the city has a population of around 50 residents, the bridge became known as the ‘bridge to nowhere’, a phrase Palin criticized as being offensive to the people who did live there. Palin was originally supportive of the bridge project, but in 2007, she canceled the endeavor, claiming that Congress had no interest in spending more money on the project. Her later effective statement of saying ‘thanks, but no thanks’ to Congress was criticized for being misleading and feeling like a betrayal of her own views and previous support for the project. She was also criticized for letting the construction of a 3-mile access road continue, using funds from the same spending bill that had been set aside for the purpose.
Palin signed a bill in August 2008 that allowed Alaska to award TransCanada Pipelines the license to build and operate a natural gas pipeline from the Alaska North Slope through Canada to the continental United States. Various iterations of this project have been ongoing since Richard Nixon was president. Newsweek, in a September 2008 article, described the pipeline thus: “the principal achievement [emphasis mine] of Sarah Palin’s term as Alaska’s governor, a natural-gas pipeline project backed by $500 million in state tax money…” The project still has not been completed as of 2019, due to the failure to obtain federal approval, as well as a shift in the project’s focus.
Palin dismissed public safety commissioner Walt Monegan in July 2008 for performance-related issues. Alaska state trooper Mike Wooten, Palin’s brother-in-law, was not fired by Monegan despite pressure from Palin and her family; Wooten had been involved in a child custody battle. The Palins hired an investigator to gather information, and Monegan said he found many of the allegations to be uncorroborated. He considered the matter finished, and at first said he couldn’t be sure the case had anything to do with his own firing, but later, he stated he believed it to be a major reason. Palin, by contrast, said that Monegan was not pressured to fire Wooten. The Alaska legislature began its own investigation into the issue, but just weeks later when Palin was chosen as John McCain’s running mate for the 2008 presidential election, she asked them to drop the investigation. In October, the released report explained that Palin was justified in firing Monegan, but had abused her power in terms of pressuring Monegan to fire Wooten. At Palin’s request, the bipartisan Alaska Personnel Board reviewed the issue and concluded that there was no cause to believe Palin had violated any ethical standards.
These incidents from her time as governor make it clear that Sarah Palin championed clean government and special interests projects. Despite her relative lack of experience, especially on a national stage, she was informed about Alaskan issues. Money was a concern for her, leading to the shutdown of the Gravina Island Bridge project. She continued the Republican tradition of trying to build a pipeline through Alaska and Canada, but it never got off the ground. That delay, as well as the bridge project’s shutdown, meant that neither of the two large projects she oversaw came to fruition. She was also beset by legal ethics issues, such as the nicknamed Troopergate. In a way, the beginning of her term as governor would herald things to come, since Palin came in as an ambitious, supportive politician, but was inundated by scandals and delays. She didn’t end up having any great lasting impact as governor. Palin fit best into the mold of working on a small scale, proven by her victories as mayor of Wasilla. However, by August 2008, she had been chosen as McCain’s running mate, which filled up the rest of that year, leaving little time to contribute to specific projects in Alaska. Palin resigned as governor in July 2009.
Before and during an election campaign and season, presidential candidates look for running mates who will help their chances, depending on their experience, personality, and political outlook. With days left before the Republican National Convention in 2008, advisors dissuaded John McCain from choosing independent Joe Lieberman as his running mate, particularly because, among other issues, Lieberman is pro-choice on the issue of abortion. The pickings, however, were slim. It was thought that Sarah Palin had star power to go against Barack Obama’s natural charisma. One goal was that she would appeal to women voters who were upset that Hillary Clinton hadn’t received the Democratic nomination. John McCain’s choice was potentially useful, since “she had a reputation in Alaska for being a reformer…and taking on special interests,” wrote Nora Kelly in an April 2016 article in The Atlantic.
Andrew Halcro, who along with Tony Knowles ran against Palin for governor in 2006, said of her personality in an August 2008 New York Times article: “She wouldn’t have articulated one coherent policy and people would just be fawning all over her. Tony and I looked at each other and it was, like, this isn’t about policy or Alaska issues, this is about people’s most basic instincts: ‘I like you, and you make me feel good.’” Halcro later made an astute connection in the same article. “You know,” he said, “that’s kind of like Obama.”
During the campaign, Palin presented a tough, yet feminine persona; namely, that of ‘the pit bull, with lipstick’. This came from a joke she made during her well-received speech at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul in September 2008, claiming that the difference between hockey moms and pit bulls was lipstick. Of course, she also considered herself a hockey mom. This dual personality worked very well for Palin on the campaign trail. She could be a tough competitor, but was competitive in the name of John McCain. She was personable. There was always a sense that, if they won, Palin would be the woman holding down the home fort of the White House while McCain went to work in the outside world. The woman would take care, while the man took charge.
Dr. Tammy Vigil is an associate professor of communication at Boston University. She focuses her research on persuasion, political campaigns, and women as communicators in politics. “There were strong woman elements with Sarah Palin—she was a hunter, posing with the guns. They were pushing against a conservative view of women but not against conservative women,” she said about the choice of Palin as McCain’s running mate. “The goal was not to identify her as a competent politician, but as someone like your neighbor. She was all show, no go.”
Palin gave a lauded acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention. Her first major interview with Charlie Gibson of ABC News met with a mixed response, though an interview five days later with Sean Hannity was better-received. The Hannity interview covered similar topics. Around this time, certain media outlets criticized McCain’s campaign for shielding Palin from the press. Then came the infamous Katie Couric interview. Palin was visiting leaders at the UN in the days preceding the interview, as Couric recalled in a November 2009 interview with David Letterman, so this opened the doors to foreign policy questions. Palin’s manner was uncertain and halting as the interview progressed. She stumbled over her words, and, at points, had to be led through the questions and her own answers by Couric, who was calm and sweet throughout. It’s clear that Couric was offering what help she could at the time, and it’s also clear that Sarah Palin was out of her depth. Despite every new question serving as an opportunity to right the ship, Palin kept sinking. This interview was a turning point for Palin’s presence and role in the campaign.
Palin made a better showing than expected in the October 2 vice presidential debate with Barack Obama’s running mate Joe Biden, though it was still felt via polls that Biden had won. Reportedly, Palin prepared extensively beforehand. Even after the debate, parodies of Palin kept making waves, particularly Tina Fey’s impersonation for Saturday Night Live. Another controversy loomed when it was revealed that the Republican National Committee had spent $150,000 on clothing, makeup, and hair styling in September for Palin and her family. After the election, Palin returned the clothes. Palin also planned to make a concession speech on election night, but was dissuaded by McCain’s aides.
By the time election night hit, Palin had made her persona known: she was the personable Alaskan who didn’t know foreign policy. Unfortunately for her and McCain’s campaign, questions of her competency and ability to be president should the need arise kept coming to the surface, and most were not convinced. Despite her ferocity and public relations power, Palin simply wasn’t experienced enough to assist in a run to victory.
Dr. Vigil believed that Palin’s performance didn’t help the cause for women as competent leaders. “She wasn’t threatening,” she said. People thought it was a cynical choice for McCain once the campaign started to go downhill, and she explained that it was thought that “Palin will be voted for just because she’s a woman.” Over the past ten years, Vigil said we’ve been “chipping away and women are slowly increasing their presence in politics.” She specifically cited the 2018 midterms, called the Year of the Woman, quite like the 1992 election.
Palin’s dual personality on the campaign trail was the most interesting aspect in terms of the future of women in politics, and especially in conservative leadership. On the one hand, she was the hockey mom who fell into politics. However, she was also ambitious and desirous of victory. Coming from small-town Alaska allowed her to appeal to voters who were used to being overlooked, while her religiosity appealed to Christians, which was, from the start, another goal for the campaign. Her ability to simply talk to people drew huge crowds. Her family also brought up another huge issue: abortion. Palin’s youngest son Trig has Downs Syndrome, and her pro-life values were a boon to that conservative issue. Better yet, it was a boon that no one else could have brought with them, especially not a man.
How did everything fall apart so fast, especially since it looked so good starting out the gate? Palin’s lack of foreign policy experience was a major aspect of her downfall. As stated earlier, the Couric interview could be seen as the turning point, particularly since several Republican commentators called for her to resign from the ticket afterwards. Sarah Palin was in over her head. Part of being vice president is having the knowledge and ability to take over as president if necessary during the term; Palin didn’t exude that quality. She didn’t plan to be in politics, and never mastered everything she was supposed to master. After the campaign was over, large gaps in her knowledge were revealed, such as not knowing which countries were part of NAFTA and being unclear about the tenets of basic civics. Steve Schmidt, a senior campaign strategist and advisor for McCain, said in 2012 that he believed vice presidential candidates should be chosen for the presidency, not for the campaign; Palin was clearly chosen for the campaign without a clear goal for the presidency. Sarah Palin, as well as McCain’s campaign, thought they knew what kind of show they were running, and they were proven wrong.
Sarah Palin’s performance on the campaign trail didn’t make or break the election. Other factors also contributed, such as the 2008 financial crisis. She made it historical, but not groundbreaking; Barack Obama did that by winning. However, it can be said for Palin that she continued the trend of women in politics, even if her presence didn’t reflect well on her party. She maintained her role as a conservative woman, while also rising to the level of international politics. When speaking on the campaign trail, she reigned in her own ambitions in favor of John McCain’s, but her actions, especially the jump into and rise in the political world, showed her ambitious nature to be on full display. She was also the harbinger of a different type of candidate: that of the uninformed personable outsider who manages to stick with the ticket despite numerous obstacles. This is seen years later with Donald Trump, a businessman who endured gaffe after gaffe and scandal after scandal but brushed everything aside to eventually win the 2016 election. Ultimately, Sarah Palin had this to tell America: conservative women can be ambitious while sticking to the party line. Conservative women can use both their ambition and their values to go far.