Palin’s non-endorsement

I’ve often been a staunch defender of Sarah Palin when it seemed she was being unfairly criticized or when the piling-on by the media and others seemed gratuitously sexist.

But I now have cause to criticize. A Sarah Palin endorsement was undoubtedly a red-hot commodity in this GOP primary. Her non-endorsement endorsement of Newt Gingrich is ridiculous, unhelpful and essentially useless to him. She frittered away her political capital to the point of near-meaninglessness.

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After skyrocketing to fame when Sen. John McCain placed the then-governor of Alaska on his 2008 ticket as his vice presidential nominee, Sarah Palin had some pretty sweet options laid out before her: She could build her political operation and ready herself for a 2012 run for the White House — or make buckets of money to secure her family’s future with lucrative book deals, speaking gigs, TV contracts and other accouterments to which she was entitled and which were well-deserved. Either scenario ensured Palin would be a political force able to raise campaign cash for candidates nationwide and be a veritable kingmaker.

Palin chose Door No. 2, opting out of a run in 2012. This meant she held one of the most valuable prizes in Republican politics for 2012 — something every candidate in the field would do just about anything to win — an endorsement from Sarah Palin. 

It is mystifying why Palin blew the one thing of value she had to offer in the race for the White House in 2012. We’ve waited with bated breath to learn whom she would choose, the timing, what she would say and where. While there have been many, many fascinating and surprising twists and turns during this GOP primary contest. It’s not an overstatement to say the anticipated Palin endorsement was to be one of the more exciting and pivotal moments of this campaign cycle. 

Do endorsements matter? It depends. If from an influential power player and arriving at a time when the recipient’s nomination is not a fait accompli, it can matter. But even that is not a guarantee — unless it’s from Sarah Palin, specifically in the GOP primary race for the 2012 nod. Even a Palin endorsement needs to come at a strategic point in the campaign in order to have maximum impact. Former Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Texas), once a presidential contender himself, famously used to say that “ready money is the mother’s milk of politics.” Ready and strategically timed key endorsements can be rather nourishing, as well.

It’s an interesting study in contrasts. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, himself a power player whose endorsement is worth his weight in gold, endorsed Mitt Romney with enthusiasm and verve, holding nothing back. He knew his endorsement was one of very few that mattered and that had value — and it showed. Donald Trump advanced his endorsement of Romney with the same level of creative fanfare and showmanship he gives to the opening of a new casino or hotel. He appreciates his brand and understands the value of a nod from “The Donald.”

That Sarah Palin sorta-maybe-kinda liked Newt Gingrich but sent her husband, Todd, out to offer his “endorsement” — while still withholding hers — was weak. It appeared she wanted to keep her finger in the air and see which way the wind was blowing before committing, seemingly forgetting that the winds in campaigns tend to shift often and without warning, or that — importantly — endorsements can move the needle, even if only a smidge. 

Her statement in the days leading up to the South Carolina primary that if she lived there, she would vote for Newt — again without actually standing next to the guy and offering her full, unequivocal endorsement — was disappointing. Leading Gingrich on and playing the tease seriously compromised Palin’s credibility. 

Palin will endorse the eventual Republican nominee, but it will merely be an exercise in ”me-too-ism.” If the nominee is Gingrich, well — she wasn’t fully there when he really needed her and when she could have made a difference. Instead, her tiptoeing around a full endorsement conveyed she wasn’t quite sold. Should Mitt Romney be the nominee, a Palin endorsement will be nice, but wasn’t there when he really needed her stamp of approval to help with conservatives and the Tea Party at critical junctures. 

What a waste.

Jacobus, president of Capitol Strategies PR, has managed congressional campaigns, worked on Capitol Hill and is an adjunct professor at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management. She appears on CNN, MSNBC and FOX News as a GOP strategist.