Why Sarah Palin is the Boise State of Politics

When Boise State’s football team lost in spectacular fashion at Nevada two weeks ago, the college football establishment breathed a sigh of relief because Boise State’s loss eliminated any chance Boise State would crash the establishment’s B.C.S championship party.  Of course, what was left unsaid was many in the establishment feared Boise State because they knew Boise State could have won the title game if they made it there. When Auburn battles Oregon for the B.C.S. title in January, both teams will be relieved they do not have to face Boise State.

Though college football’s regular season has all but come to an end, it was striking how similar Boise State haters resembled those in the political establishment who despise another anti-establishment, unconventional figure from the frontier: Sarah Palin.

Palin, like what Boise State is to its fans (since Palin attended Boise
State’s rival, Idaho, she may welcome this comparison as much as I, a lifelong Alabama
fan, would if someone compared me to Auburn), is a credible and proper avatar for her supporters because she is cut from the same cloth as they are. And like many of Boise State’s top players, she, along with her supporters, feels as if she has been undervalued and  “mis-underestimated” her whole life.

With this chip on their shoulders, Palin and Boise State play unconventionally as if they have nothing to lose, and perhaps they don’t. Boise State often defies convention by going for two-point conversions after their first touchdown, faking punts in unorthodox ways, and running “Statue of Liberty” plays. And, of course, convention and Palin are hardly synonymous. Yet, Boise State, like Palin, has a lot of grit beneath the unconventional flashiness, and they have proven as much by often out-hitting and outplaying supposedly tougher and stronger opponents who have more depth whenever they have gotten that opportunity. This year, most football reporters would concede that Boise State’s defensive front is arguably the best in the nation, better than even the beasts from the SEC Conference.

Their biggest similarity, though, may be that they present the establishment with a lose-lose situation because of how much they are underestimated and dismissed by it.

For instance, had Boise State made it into the championship game, either Oregon or Auburn would be put in a no-win situation because they would be expected to win, and they would be laughed out of town if they lost.

For similar reasons, Palin is the potential GOP presidential nominee that President Obama should fear the most, even if gullible mainstream media reporters believe that Obama does not spend much time thinking about Palin.

In a hypothetical 2012 contest between Palin and Obama, the chattering class would dismiss an Obama victory as having been a foregone conclusion because they would have expected nothing less. The mainstream (or “lamestream,” in Palin’s vernacular) media’s expectation setters  and narrative framers would expect nothing less than an Obama landslide because they cannot even imagine the possibility of a Palin Presidency.

But should Palin pull off what elites think is unthinkable and unimaginable and defeat Obama in a general election, reporters will deem it the most catastrophic flop in the history of Presidential politics.

But just as it would have been foolish to bet against Boise State, which has a track record of proving they can beat any team on a given night (many would choose Boise State head coach Coach Chris Petersen if they had to pick a coach to win just one game), it would be absurd to dismiss Palin’s chances of winning a general election so reflexively like many on the right and left repeatedly do.

Here’s why.

Looking at three prominent indicators analysts often employ to study
outcomes of Presidential elections – the economy, the “beer test,” and the contrast test – Palin stands to potentially come out on top of Obama in all three areas.

First, of course, is the economy. Many analysts believe the personal
characteristics that each candidate brings to the table do not really matter because Presidents are re-elected or defeated based on how strong or weak the economy is. If this is true, and if the nation’s economy remains stagnant, even a generic Republican may defeat Obama. As of now, Palin has as good a shot as any potential GOP candidate to win the GOP nomination if she chooses to run.

Second, another metric used to analyze elections is the proverbial “beer test,” which essentially holds that the candidate voters would most like to have a beer with wins the election. I call this the “populist” test. And since 1980, the candidate who has most successfully portrayed himself as the more populist candidate has won every election. Obama may be the king of beer summits, but he comes off as more wine and cheese than draft beer, something that would only be accentuated if he is juxtaposed next to Palin, for part of Obama’s problem has been that the proverbial Joe or Jane Six-pack has trouble believing that Obama is empathizing with them and feeling their struggles and hardships.

Third, scholars also believe that voters often elect a President who is a dynamic contrast from the previous President. Recent elections give such theories credibility. For instance, in 1992, Bill Clinton got elected because voters thought the McDonalds loving Bubba came off as less patrician than George H.W. Bush, who infamously looked at his watch and fumbled in answering a semi-coherent question from an African-American town hall questioner. In 2000, George W. Bush, on the other hand, got elected mainly because voters believed he would not stain the office of the Presidency the way Clinton did. And in 2008,  Obama got elected because voters wanted a President who was more cerebral (and perhaps a better and more coherent orator) than George W. Bush, who often relied on his gut instincts and seemed to revel in his malapropisms.

In 2012, however, voters may feel Obama has swung too far into the deliberative, pensive, wishy-washy, professorial, and senatorial side of the ledger, and they may want to swing the pendulum back a bit. And Palin would present voters with the most dynamic contrast. She would be smash-mouth to Obama’s finesse. She’d come off as plain spoken next to Obama’s soaring rhetoric that is often 30,000 feet above and removed from reality. And she would represent exurbia while Obama would personify the urban, city dweller.

More significantly, though, contrary to those who somehow think general elections are decided by the national popular vote, the 2012 election will most likely be decided in the Electoral College swing states of Ohio, Florida, Missouri, and Colorado.

Is it not plausible that Palin could win Ohio (her natural constituency may be the blue collar, white male workers who have been displaced, and they may turn out in droves to vote for her), Florida (with her staunch support of Israel), Missouri (where Proposition C, a direct rebuke to “Obama Care,” passed with overwhelming support earlier this year), and Colorado (she can turn out Evangelicals in Colorado Springs in a state whose Democrats are running away from Obama) and thus win the election? To anyone so sure and confident that Palin cannot win a general election, I ask: Would you bet your mortgage that she could not win these swing states?

Discounting Palin’s chances of becoming President would be akin to discounting Boise
State’s chances of winning a BCS title game had they qualified for it, and those who openly and vociferously brush aside Palin and Boise State are only revealing their own set of inherent—and, dare I say, elitist—biases.

Meanwhile, Palin could learn a lesson from Boise State’s failure to make it into the championship game.

In the aforementioned game against Nevada, Boise State quarterback Kellen Moore completed a 54-yard Hail Mary to Titus Young in the waning seconds of a tied game only to have kicker kicker Kyle Brotzman miss a chip shot field goal that is often taken for granted. In overtime, Brotzman again missed a short field goal, dooming any chance Boise State would have had of winning the game and getting into the title match.

The lesson for Palin is obvious: For all of her ability to generate media buzz, advance the conservative agenda, and dominate the media cycle like no other political figure, she must avoid letting the fundamentals of politics potentially trip her up while she is en route to a potential title bout against Obama, which would be a match she could surely win.