Vogue marked Sarah Palin as a rising female politician before Republican presidential nominee John McCain turned her into a household name by unexpectedly picking her as his running mate. In a featured interview and photo spread in the February 2008 issue of Vogue, Palin is pictured striding purposefully across a vast expanse of snowy Alaskan landscape and leaning, legs crossed, against her family’s seaplane. She is the lone woman in the wilderness, the “hockey mom” who is single-handedly revitalizing Alaskan politics and, as she told the magazine, “changing Alaska’s image.”
Alaskans themselves, however, are not sure if change means improvement.
A poll released in early October by Ivan Moore, an Anchorage-based pollster, shows Palin’s approval rating in her home state at 65 percent — a precipitous drop from January, when it stood at 82 percent — and her disapproval rating at an all-time high of 30 percent. Once the most popular governor in America, Palin is now viewed as an “outsider” by many Alaskans because her independent views have launched on a new trajectory towards traditional Republican party values. Palin’s sudden conservative leanings have left many of the dozen Yalies from the Last Frontier state scratching their heads.
‘Not crazy,’ by Alaskan standards
For Yalies hailing from Palin’s home state, the Aug. 29 announcement that McCain was tapping Palin as his running mate elicited mixed reactions.
Sam Gottstein ’10, who is from Anchorage, said he “flipped out … in complete shock” when he heard the news. Although he was initially excited about the publicity Palin would bring to the state, he found her views on foreign policy “completely ridiculous,” as he put it.
After Palin’s now-infamous “I can see Russia from my house” comment in an ABC News interview, Gottstein said he and his friends from home joked that they should build a Russia-viewing platform in Anchorage as a tourist trap.
Her comments regarding national issues, as opposed to just Alaskan politics, revealed her lack of experience, he said.
After all, Palin has enjoyed considerable popularity in her two years as governor, where, Alaskan students said, she is both well-versed in local issues and respected by Republicans and Democrats alike.
“In her first year in office, there was not a single decision I could disagree with,” said Gottstein, a self-proclaimed Democrat.
As governor, Palin has reversed many of the unpopular policies of former Republican Gov. Frank Murkowski, who, according to many Alaskans, was the latest in a series of “old boys’ club” Republicans dominating Alaskan politics.
Of course, students said, her popularity is in large part due to the low standards set by other Alaska politicians, including Mike Gravel, a former senator from Alaska, and current Sen. Ted Stevens — now facing corruption charges — as well as Murkowski, who had the lowest approval rating out of all fifty governors in the U.S. Against the closed style of governing by these past Republican parties, Palin pushed for more ethics and transparency in government and less pork-barrel federal spending, often taking pro-regulation, pro-tax positions, among other measures.
“So far Alaska has been represented by people who are crazy,” Adrian Ryan ’09 said. The fact that Palin is “somebody who is not crazy” makes her more respected, he added.
Adapting to the big screen
Several students interviewed expressed some surprise at Palin’s stumbles on the national stage, saying that although she had given vague answers during her gubernatorial campaign debates, she was able to distill local issues into a basic message voters could understand.
“She just seemed absolutely vapid [on national television],” said Matt Smith ’10, who worked for her opponent’s campaign in 2006. “But I was a little bit surprised to see the way she sort of got lost in this big media storm and had all those gaffes. She’s extraordinarily well-spoken in Alaska.”
Smith suggested Palin’s incoherence, as he described it, was caused by a combination of nervousness and inexperience, but predicted that her charisma admired in Alaska would probably help her recover. “I think she is very, very fast at adapting to social situations,” he said.
Ryan agreed: “She’s folksied up her image for sure, but she’s actually … more bright than a lot of people give her credit for.”
Hometown girl or outsider?
As for Palin’s small-town, hockey-mom image, many Alaskan students disagree on whether or not she actually represents people in their home state, where, Ryan says, “politics do get very personal.” While some adore her because she is “like the typical Alaska mom,” others question her religious fundamentalism and Wasilla origins.
“Wasilla, it’s ‘valley trash,’ ” Gottstein said in describing a town of strip malls and big-box stores. “It’s just expanding too quickly and too cheaply.”
Kreiss-Tomkins — who has met Palin several times and worked in one of Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama’s field offices in Alaska — elaborated, characterizing Wasilla’s Matsu Valley surroundings as “really white and really conservative.” On the whole, he said, Alaska is the least religious state in the nation and a large group of voters there are independents with libertarian leanings — true mavericks.
Which is why, the Alaskans all agreed, Alaska’s “hometown girl” may be in for a bit of a shock if and when she returns.
“Alaskans are very picky about their people, and when she comes back, she’ll come back as an outsider,” Gottstein predicted. Although the governor’s strongest supporters — or “Palin-bots” — idolize her even more, her stint as McCain’s running mate may have alienated many of the people who first elected her. Her shift towards traditional conservatism and her reversal on the “Troopergate” investigation have most likely lost her the trust of many constituents as well as the support of former Democratic allies in the Alaska legislature.
Kreiss-Tomkins compared Palin’s transformation to McCain’s. “Just like McCain sold his soul to the devil, Sarah Palin was a true maverick, and she too has now sold her soul,” Kreiss-Tomkins said. “She’s become a Republican robot … an ex-maverick.”
Alaska has only voted once for a Democratic presidential candidate since becoming a state in 1959, and Yalies from Alaska have no doubt that it will once again go red. And students are confident that Palin will be back, even if she loses the vice presidential nomination.
“She has obvious federal office ambitions, and she’s going to return as a presidential candidate,” Kreiss-Tomkins said.