November 16, 2009
Sarah Palin's Walmart StrategyBy J. Robert Smith
What's notable about Sarah Palin's book tour, which starts midweek, is where she's not going. She's not going to L.A. or New York, Boston or San Francisco. She's going smack-dab to the middle of the country. Fly-over country, liberals call it. And it's a shrewd move, not only in selling books, but positioning herself for a presidential run in 2012 if she chooses that path.
It's a strategy right out of the late Sam Walton's playbook: go where there's demand and the competition ain't. Walton, who could have run and won political campaigns, built Walmart into the behemoth it is today by opening his discount stores in small towns in the heartland, towns that the eight-hundred pound gorilla K-Mart ignored.
Walton conquered the discount retail category from the heartland out. He didn't so much clobber K-Mart as steal a march on it. Palin may just prove that a heartland strategy does more than sell blenders and books. It may be the foundation for winning a national election.
Make no mistake: right now, heartlanders (and heartlanders in spirit) are feeling awfully ignored by Washington politicians. The president and Congress are intent on ramming a health care reform measure through that an ever-increasing majority of Americans oppose. They're spending as if using someone else's credit card (in fact, the people's); they play Americans for dupes by calling an old-fashioned pork barrel bill an economic stimulus; and for toppers, President Obama is playing Hamlet about Afghanistan, thus putting brave soldiers there at greater risk every day.
What Palin will bring to places like Noblesville, Indiana; Washington, Pennsylvania; and Fort Bragg, N.C. is her brand of popular conservatism: upbeat, optimistic, and certain. It really is an offshoot of the Reagan brand. And the Reagan brand has its roots deep in the American character.
Corny as it sounds to tone-deaf liberals, most citizens believe in the American Way. It's no accident that voters identify as conservative rather than liberal by a two-to-one margin...and that doesn't count all those other voters who hold some conservative values and positions.
And it may not be just conservatives and conservative-leaners who find Palin's Americanism attractive. Sean Trende, in a solid analysis for RealClearPolitics, showed that in November's off-year elections -- principally in Virginia, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania -- affluent suburban voters, who were trending Democratic, moved away from the party toward conservative Republican candidates.
But another striking fact from the elections was the continued movement toward the GOP by those whom Trende and his colleague, Jay Cost, term "Jacksonians" (in part, heartlanders).
Trende writes that in the 2008 presidential election, drop-off in Jacksonians' support for Barack Obama may have shaved seven percentage points from his vote aggregate. It was the difference between a fairly close margin of victory (53% to 46%) and a landslide.
The dilemma this poses for Democrats, as Trende concludes, is that though it's possible for the party to maintain majority status absent the Jacksonians, it's a very hard trick to pull off, especially if there's a sustained migration of affluent suburban voters back to the GOP.
So Palin's heartland strategy means consolidating her base among voters from Kentucky to Michigan, from central Pennsylvania clear over to the Rocky Mountains. The Deep South is largely in conservative hands now.
And just as with Walmart's strategy of building its retailing muscle from the heartland out, Palin's next move should be into the nation's suburbs. Starting with her vice presidential nomination, the mainstream media and liberal pundits and bloggers have done an expert job of slicing and dicing Palin's reputation. Voter perceptions of Palin in affluent suburbs are more caricature than reality. In many eyes, she's a mix of good-looking airhead and gun-toting, social-issues radical.
Palin can explode those perceptions by engaging suburbanites on a retail basis, something that small-minded and controlling McCain campaign operatives barred her from doing last year.
The former Alaska governor is, by all appearances and reports, a warm and engaging personality who talks a commonsense language that resonates with most Americans. The key for her is to connect her conservative principles with suburbanites' concerns. She needs to illustrate ways that conservatism has practical and flexible applications to current problems. Nowadays, most citizens, including upscale suburbanites, experience the challenge of raising kids the right way, keeping household budgets in balance, and saving for rainy days and retirements. They worry about keeping their jobs and are against tax hikes and profligate government spending.
There is, in short, plenty of common ground between suburbanites and Palin. It's just waiting to be discovered.
Of course, no one should expect liberal poison pens to stop writing against Palin. The clack of computer keys will grow even louder at the Daily Kos and Huffington Post. The Katie Courics and the gang at MS-NBC will step up their potshots. But Palin engaging Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, and Rush Limbaugh, among others, should go a long way in blunting the liberal invective that will increase with each stop of her book tour. Again, this is something McCain campaign gurus prevented her from doing last election season.
Sam Walton once said:
The same holds true for politicians' relationships to citizens. It's not happening now in America. Sarah Palin has the opportunity to change that for the better.