She’s the only man or woman who warrants a personal influence-tracking map on The Washington Post’s politics page.
Republican Sarah Palin, former Alaska governor, has arrived, much to the consternation of many on the left, on the right and in the media — because no one can pin her down, even those close to her.
As one confidante recently whispered, "Where is she going with this?"
The debate over her influence on a number of primary elections has the political elite and media chattering, yet Isaac Wood, a campaign analyst at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, dismisses it as just that — chatter.
"This is another in a long line of examples of people overestimating the effect of endorsements," Wood explains. "In most of the races so far, it doesn’t mean a thing. Sometimes she picked winners, sometimes losers, but nowhere is it clear that her endorsement actually caused the result, one way or another."
Palin is a heroine to many but remains an outsider.
She means a lot of things to a lot of different people.
To many liberal feminists, she’s a modern version of anti-feminist icon Phyllis Schlafly, a threat to women’s nearly 50 years of progress in politics, business and society.
To many tea partyers, libertarians and conservative Republicans, she’s an inspiring leader for conservative women and a national symbol of anti-elitism.
In 1984, the choice of U.S. Rep. Geraldine Ferraro, D-N.Y., as Democrat Walter Mondale’s running mate excited progressive women and made them believe they had a place at the political table.
Although many analysts believe the political "gender gap" came about after that because women started voting more for Democrats, it really was a case of women staying with the party that they (and much of the rest of the country) joined during Franklin Roosevelt’s administration — partly owing to the inspiration of Eleanor Roosevelt.
Ferraro’s candidacy just gave women a reason to stay.
Eight years later, says Lara Brown, a political science professor at Villanova University, came 1992, the "Year of the Woman," in which "more women ran for office and the percentage of women serving in the U.S. Congress jumped from 6 percent in 1991 to 10 percent."
Viewed through this prism, Palin gives some women a reason to join the GOP or run for office.
"Even though some feminists view her advocacy of conservative ideas as a setback for women, it is clear to me that women will only be perceived as individuals — truly equal to men — when there are women in politics who reside all along the ideological spectrum," says Brown.
No one would presume that conservative talk-radio king Rush Limbaugh and progressive MSNBC provocateur Keith Olbermann hold the same views simply because they’re men.
We’ll have gender parity in presidential politics when both major parties’ nominees are women.
We’ve had 54 presidential elections since George Washington stepped down in 1796, and all the major-party nominees have been men.
Palin represents not only the anti-establishment, as so many refer to her brand of politics, but also the anti-elite. She did not attend an Ivy League university, as did our last four presidents. She attended four colleges over five years (1982-87), which some view as evidence of a lack of intellectual curiosity but might be seen more appropriately as a mark of tenacity and resiliency.
"Like many of our past politicians and presidents — Democrats Andrew Jackson and Harry Truman especially come to mind — she pulled herself up by her bootstraps and followed her rising star to the national stage," says Brown.
Which is why, within specific voting blocs, her endorsement carries weight.
Yet no one, including friends, knows where she’s headed — if anywhere.
"In the end, her endorsement power is being watched much more closely by the national media and the inside-the-Beltway crowd than it is by actual voters," says Wood.
"While national pundits are giving Palin credit" for making Joe Miller’s race against Alaska’s incumbent U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski too close to call on election night, he adds, "most of the observers on the ground there say it was a ballot referendum about abortion which gave him the biggest boost."