In looking for a comparison to Sarah Palin as a presidential contender, few would ever consider Barack Obama, yet beneath their political differences are some striking strategic parallels. When the Federal Election Commission released the quarterly filings of Sarah Palin's political action committee last week, a new round of speculation about whether the former Alaska governor is positioning herself to run for president began among pundits, journalists, and the chattering class.
The mainstream media often dismisses Palin's chances of winning the presidency, but doing so ignores her closeness to where then-Senator Obama stood entering the 2006 midterm elections. Her potential path to the White House would resemble the one Obama took. By any measure, a simple comparison of their ascendancies shows how strategically Palin is positioned to ride the brewing discontent at Obama's reckless fiscal policies to become the nation's first female president, just like Obama rode the anti-Bush and antiwar wave to become the nation's first black president.
The Wave: Retaining Deaniacs and Paul-ites
By opposing the Iraq War, Obama positioned himself to win the support of enthusiastic progressives who backed rabidly antiwar candidate Howard Dean in the 2004 Democratic primaries. These young, anti-establishment, and well-educated voters gravitated toward Obama over Hillary Clinton primarily because Clinton voted for the Iraq War while Obama argued against it, and their early bursts of relentless enthusiasm propelled Obama to the Democratic nomination.
Likewise, Ron Paul supporters in the 2008 GOP primaries play a role similar to 2004's Deaniacs. Like the Deaniacs, the Paul-ites were thorns in the side of the establishment, and they fiercely voiced their anger at Washington's reckless spending before it was popular to do so. By speaking out consistently and forcefully against Obama's policies and priorities that have crippled the nation with debt, such as the stimulus and health care reform, Palin has harnessed the frustrations of Ron Paul supporters and Tea Partiers; their concerns and enthusiasm are likely to dominate the 2012 presidential primary, and Palin is well-positioned to be their champion.
And just as Obama ensured that the antiwar left would not break off from Democrats, Palin has earned enough street cred among Tea Partiers to the point where Tea Partiers will most likely not break off into a third-party movement should Palin win the nomination.
The Base: Blacks and Evangelicals
Blacks saw Obama as their champion just as Evangelicals view Palin as theirs. Blacks and Evangelicals feel that they are marginalized by the mainstream media and taken for granted by Democrats and Republicans, respectively.
And just as blacks make up nearly half of the electorate in some Democratic primaries in Southern states, evangelicals make up a majority of Republican primary voters in early primary states such as Iowa and South Carolina, which makes Palin more than formidable in the nominating process. Further, should she win the nomination, enthusiastic evangelicals, just as enthusiastic blacks did for Obama, will likely give Palin a very high floor of support that will enable her to position herself to court independents and disaffected Democrats in the general election.
The Internet: Using Social Networking to Increase Turnout
Obama's tech-savvy campaign will be remembered as the first that figured out how to use internet to raise money and, more importantly, turn out his enthusiastic supporters to the polls. His campaign seamlessly integrated groups that organically formed online -- such as Students for Obama and One Million Strong for Barack -- into the campaign, thereby creating platforms where his supporters could be ambassadors for Obama in their own communities. Obama's online presence helped organize his supporters in key swing states that he won, such as North Carolina, Virginia, Colorado, and Indiana.
Whereas the Obama campaign gave his supporters the tools to organically organize, Palin has used Facebook and Twitter to go around what she calls "the lamestream media" and speak directly to her supporters or opine about and influence current events (like her enthusiastic support of Arizona's immigration legislation) in a way Obama never did or imagined (it is worth noting that Obama never had to go around the mainstream media, since they were more than willing to aid and abet his candidacy). Like Obama, Palin also has plenty of groups that are forming online, such as Conservatives4Palin.com, Vets4Sarah.net, and Draft Sarah2012, that can be incorporated into a larger political organization.
The potential for Palin to be the first "social networking" candidate, using the new media to turn out Evangelicals, tea partiers, "mama grizzlies," and other members of her coalition in droves (while replenishing her campaign war chest), remains largely untapped.
The Brand: Obama, Inc. and Palin, Inc.
In 2008, it was Obama's "no drama Obama" campaign that ultimately reassured voters that they could trust a man who had no executive experience in government and had never run a business. At the time, voters, and particularly independents, saw how smoothly his campaign was managed -- there were no public squabbles between advisors, for instance -- and gave Obama the benefit of the doubt, trusting him to be the country's CEO.
Should she challenge Obama in 2012, Palin, who has run a state and a small business, will have to answer similar doubts about her leadership abilities. Team Obama and its allies will consistently call her a "quitter" or a "half-term governor," and Palin, like Obama in '08, can quell these doubts by hiring the right people and running a seamless organization devoid of turmoil and drama. How she manages Palin, Inc. will determine whether voters will trust her to lead the country.
When Obama was mulling a presidential run in 2006, his chief advisor David Axelrod, as reported by Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson, told him that "history is replete with potential candidates for the presidency who waited too long rather than examples of people who ran too soon. ... You will never be hotter than you are right now."
This same advice could be given to Palin as 2012 approaches. Her star is not likely to shine brighter than it will then. And if unemployment remains high while inflation looms or hits, Obama may be as vulnerable as Jimmy Carter was in 1980 heading into his reelection, giving Palin a clear shot at the White House -- if she wants it.
Chris Matthews, host of MSNBC's "Hardball" and one who never ceases to mince his words when criticizing Palin, often speaks about the proverbial "galloping horse of history" that comes in front of potentially transformational figures every generation or so. Sometime after the midterm elections and before 2012, that horse will soon gallop in front of Palin. If she aspires to be president, she would be foolish not to jump on it -- for by most metrics, Palin is better-suited now than Obama was in 2006 to ride it all the way to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Tony Lee is a conservative writer. Follow him on Twitter: @TheTonyLee; e-mail him at AJLEE28@GMAIL.COM.