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Political Analysis: The Palin Effect

Audio

Aired 9/2/09

KPBS political correspondent Gloria Penner examines the "Palin effect" on the Republican Party. The surprising celebrity of Sarah Palin may be opening the way for other women to become major candidates in the GOP.

Sarah Palin speaks during the vice presidential debate at the Field House of Washington University's Athletic Complex on October 2, 2008 in St. Louis, Missouri.
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Above: Sarah Palin speaks during the vice presidential debate at the Field House of Washington University's Athletic Complex on October 2, 2008 in St. Louis, Missouri.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. After months of being trampled by candidate Barack Obama's 'charisma express,' last year Republicans were shocked and delighted to discover they had their own rock star politician. What Sarah Palin may have lacked in ready answers to the media, she made up for in political pizzazz. While the GOP is still trying to figure out where Sarah Palin fits in the party's future, the 'Palin effect' may have already caused a turning point for Republican female candidates. Until now, the California Republican Party has never nominated a woman for governor or for the U.S. Senate. Now there are two high-profile Republican women who are running for those offices. We'll find out whether next year is the year of the woman for the state Republican Party, and what Sarah Palin may have done to spark an interest in GOP female candidates. Joining me is my guest Gloria Penner, KPBS political correspondent. Good morning, Gloria.

GLORIA PENNER (KPBS Political Correspondent): Good morning, Maureen. I'm looking forward to our conversation.

CAVANAUGH: Well, first of all, Gloria, remind us a little bit about the unexpected popularity of former Alaska governor Sarah Palin. She may have come on the national scene unprepared but didn't she immediately kick up the popularity of the Republican ticket?

PENNER: Absolutely. She debuted at last year's Republican National Convention. I was there and I watched this phenomenon as a popular figure, nearly six out of ten Americans held a favorable opinion of her. She had lots of firsts. First of all, she was the second female – That's not a first. The second female candidate and the first Alaskan candidate of either major party on a national ticket as well as the first female vice presidential nominee of the Republican Party. And, you know, there was speculation that after McCain and Palin lost that she would seek the Republican nomination for president in the 2012 election. But, unfortunately, public – for her, public confidence in her dropped as the November election neared and it has slipped even further in the months since. So let me just give you an example of how her supporters portrayed her. This gives you the feeling for her. She was, according to them, a reformer who cares about America, not a product of backroom brokers. Her speeches and her messages are her own, not dictated by a large special interest group. She wasn't the creation of a political image maker or an acting coach. She's not an elitist from a hard work – She's from a large, hardworking blue collar family, and she and her husband were small business. In short, they portrayed her as America's own Joan of Ark.

CAVANAUGH: Well, you know, of course we have to make sure that we acknowledge the fact that there are other Republican women in office but did you get the sense that Palin's celebrity surprised a lot of Republicans?

PENNER: Oh, absolutely. There was no question that they were surprised by this. They – As a vice presidential candidate, she was seen as an empathetic figure but a new poll shows that Americans are now split on whether she understands the problems of people like themselves. Their concern was that maybe she really wasn't up to understanding the complexities of what the problems of the United States are and were.

CAVANAUGH: So let's move on now to the two Republican women who have been talked about for high office here in California. Let's start with Meg Whitman. Tell us a little bit about her.

PENNER: Okay, well, let's go back just a little bit.

CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh.

PENNER: After Arnold Schwarzenegger replaced a Democrat in 2003 to become governor of California, Republicans were hopeful that his popularity—after all, he was a former movie hero—would help stop the long decline for Republicans in the state of California. So six years later, Republicans are looking at their registration and it can – they can – it continues to fall and so many people in the party were really looking for someone to boost it and they started pinning their hopes on two high profile women. But these women are not high profile in politics which might be a saving grace. These days people look at politicians pretty down the line. I'm not even going to compare what other career or profession they may be down the line with. But they were two former very high level corporate chief executives, Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina. So let's start with Ms. Whitman. She's former president and CEO of the online auction company eBay which was – is based in San Jose. Last February, she threw her hat in the ring. She was raised in an upscale suburb in New York City. She started her business career in marketing. Here are some of the products that she marketed: Head & Shoulders Shampoo and Mr. Potato Head toys. But despite that, she did become the Chief Executive of eBay and as a result of that she became a billionaire. And she was married to, what else, a brain surgeon. His name is Griffith Rutherford Harsh IV. And they have two sons and, of course, they attend Princeton.

CAVANAUGH: And Meg Whitman, of course, has, you know, a huge amount of business experience but very little political experience.

PENNER: This is true.

CAVANAUGH: And now I hear that she says she won't debate?

PENNER: Well, she never actually said I'm not going to debate but she has not accepted the opportunity for face-to-face confrontations with the other candidates. So one of her spokespeople insisted that she's putting herself to the test regularly on the campaign trail because she has a full schedule of appointments, she's giving a lot of stump speeches, you can read her resume, she even takes questions from GOP activists and the local media. But, you know, she's following the path of the typical frontrunner who is providing no opportunities for her opponents to cut into her lead in the polls.

CAVANAUGH: Now she, of course, is an announced candidate for governor. And who is her competition among Republican candidates?

PENNER: Well, you know, they're really rather impressive. First of all, we have the Insurance Commissioner of the State of California. His name is Steve Poizner. And he's got quite a background. He's – He, himself, has lots and lots of money. He was a – an executive and CEO of a software firm in California in the Silicon Valley. He then went on to work for the federal government and he's really got very, very excellent credentials. He's also capable of raising a lot of money and in a race like this, this is terribly important. The other one is Representative Tom Campbell, California congressman. You know, he has more academic credentials. I was just trying to take a look at my list of all his credentials. He went to law school. He has a Ph.D. So he's got the academic credentials but he doesn't seem to have the same kind of fundraising potential as Poizner does and – But he's very much there in the race, so that's who they are right now.

CAVANAUGH: So that's the Republican race for governor right now.

PENNER: Yes.

CAVANAUGH: Let's move over to the Senate, Barbara Boxer's Senate seat, because Carly Fiorina, former CEO of Hewlett Packard is exploring the possibility of running for that seat. And she is also a political newcomer, is that right?

PENNER: She is. She filed papers last week for a political fundraising committee so that's the first step. Sort of an exploratory committee and presumably this is to run for Barbara Boxer's U.S. Senate seat. Now, Barbara Boxer's a three-term Senator and a Democrat and although she really never got a huge percentage of the votes for the – from the state of California, she's been able to carry the state. Fiorina, a little bit of background on her, she was the former CEO at Hewlett Packard, and there is another Republican running at this point. It's Assemblyman Chuck Devore of Orange County. He's quite conservative, and he's been campaigning for months but he doesn't have the resources that Fiorina's prepared to spend. So already Fiorina has hired the communications firm that helped Governor Schwarzenegger in most of his campaigns, and also a creative firm that worked on the McCain/Palin campaign so she's already putting out the bucks to hire the big line consultants. And, you know, she and Devore seem to have similar beliefs on social issues and that's an area that we really need to talk about a little bit. But the difference is, Devore has the strong, anti-tax following and Fiorina supported President Obama's financial stimulus and bailout program.

CAVANAUGH: You know, just yesterday Carly Fiorina was hit with a potential political scandal involving HP printers being sold to Iran. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

PENNER: Yeah, that's – that is when she was the, theoretically, the CEO of Hewlett Packard and the way it worked is that – actually those reports have been surfacing for about the last nine months. An HP subsidiary sold $120 million worth of equipment to a Middle Eastern distributor who sold it to Iran in spite of a U.S. embargo. And then in 1999, HP's mid-east general manager was quoted as saying, Iran is a big market for Hewlett Packard printers. And in 2003, Fiorina described the Middle East as a growth region for the company. In that same year, that Middle Eastern distributor reported $100 million in HP sales. So it, you know, the seeds of its relationship with HP were sown for Iran without any question. So far, Fiorina has declined a request for an interview on it but one of her spokespeople said, quote, to her knowledge during her tenure, HP never did business in Iran and fully complied with all U.S. sanctions and laws. But the state Democratic chairman, John Burton, predicted that voters won't buy Fiorina's explanation and said she's running a company and doesn't know what's happening there? It's always somebody else's fault.

CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with KPBS political correspondent Gloria Penner, and we're talking about the possible 'Palin effect,' helping potential female candidates, Republican female candidates, here in the state of California. And if you'd like to join us with a question or a comment, you can give us a call at 1-888-895-5727. Well, despite this potential scandal with Fiorina and the printers to Iran, I would imagine that both of these candidates, being CEOs, Whitman and Fiorina, have something good to bring to the campaign during these tough economic times.

PENNER: Well, this is true. I mean – And I think that's the key right there, Maureen, just what you said, tough economic times. There's something very beguiling about having a business – the kind of business experience that these women have. And they were pretty successful. I mean, it's true that Fiorina does come to this campaign, if she does run, as – with considerable baggage because she was pushed out as Hewlett Packard's chief in 2005 and she's had a little bit of political problem of her own. She was sort of sidelined as the surrogate for last year's GOP campaign after she said that neither Mr. McCain nor former Alaska governor Sarah Palin could run a major corporation. I mean, that was not politically credible for a lot of the supporters of McCain and Palin. So when you take a look at that, you know that she politically is a novice and although she has business experience and she has the capability of raising a lot of money, even putting her own money into the campaign, it's going to be a long, hard road for her.

CAVANAUGH: Let's take a call. Chris is calling us from the 805. Good morning, Chris, and welcome to These Days.

CHRIS (Caller, Interstate 805): Hey, how you doing?

CAVANAUGH: Great.

CHRIS: So I just wanted to point out, yeah, these are two extremely successful women and so, in many respects, maybe the comparison to Sarah Palin is not completely valid. I mean, these are two high-powered CEOs running for political office and it's kind of just two successful women and – as opposed to, you know, the 'Sarah Palin effect,' I think.

CAVANAUGH: Okay, thank you, Chris.

PENNER: Well, I think that's – that is a perfectly valid remark, Chris. Comparing her to Sarah Palin maybe is not fair. I do it in order to get the effect, the 'Sarah Palin effect,' meaning that, you know, finally a Republican woman did rise to a pretty high standard running for vice president and maybe this encouraged these other Republican women to try for offices in California that Republican women had never tried for before. I mean, this, in itself, is quite incredible. Unfortunately, they've already assumed some kind of political baggage. Both of them have a very poor voting record. Either they never registered with a party or they haven't voted in many elections. And although they have apologized, they do acknowledge that they have not been voters. To – For some people, that is a consideration, you know. How can you run for office when you haven't really voted? And the fact that Meg Whitman doesn't seem willing to debate as well is a negative, too. But, hey, Fiorina was the first woman to chair a Fortune 20 firm and I think that her business experience is going to say what other candidates have been unable to say, which is I know how to run things.

CAVANAUGH: And the way I understood, reading your blog about the 'Palin effect' is you're not necessarily comparing the qualifications of Carly Fiorina and Meg Whitman to Sarah Palin but rather saying that because Sarah Palin was so incredibly popular among the Republican electorate, that this has opened some people's eyes to the idea that a woman can actually become a political celebrity within the Republican Party.

PENNER: Yes. And, in fact, there is a group trying to raise grassroots support in California for Meg Whitman and they're calling themselves 'The Mega Women.' So already they're taking ownership of the idea that Meg Whitman is not just any woman, she is a mega woman and they're going to take full advantage of that. Of course, on the other hand, you have her competitor, Steve Poizner, who has started a website because she has been unwilling to – or apparently unwilling to debate and he's calling it 'Mega Duck…

CAVANAUGH: Oh.

PENNER: …2010.' So now we have 'Mega Woman' and we have 'Mega Duck.' I don't know what's next.

CAVANAUGH: Well, there is the other side of the coin. And apparently there's some polling and some research that shows that conservative Republican women are – don't really care about the gender of the candidate as much as they care about the very conservative politics. So what kind of support can Fiorina and Whitman expect from Republican women?

PENNER: Well, Whitman in an acknowledged fiscal conservative but she's also an acknowledged social moderate. She is a pro-choice woman. And I think that that's going to be a real problem among the conservative women in the Republican Party in California. On the other hand, there's some mixed reports about Carly Fiorina. Now she has said, and I saw an article in which she was quoted, saying that she was pro-life. But one of her opponents is saying perhaps that is not entirely true. I mean, she's been out there speaking to pro-abortion groups during the campaign for McCain – the McCain campaign. And so he isn't convinced but, of course, that's because he's a conservative. Chuck Devore's a conservative and he's hoping that he gets the rubric, the conservative rubric, and she doesn't. But as far as I can see, she is not a pro-choice woman.

CAVANAUGH: Is it possible that both of these women, Whitman and Fiorina, might face that classic problem that Republican candidates have these days, that they are perhaps more electable but not conservative enough for the base and so they'll never get the nomination in the Republican Party.

PENNER: That is certainly possible and that's been one of the problems with the Republican Party in California. Although Schwarzenegger certainly got the nomination and one would have to say he was socially moderate. And – But if that's the case, then the Republican Party is probably going to not advantage itself in California because if they really are going to field someone to oppose someone like a Barbara Boxer, it's going to be someone who has to appeal to Republicans generally, certainly to independents, and even to some Democrats.

CAVANAUGH: Well, let's close our conversation, Gloria, with the woman who started it, and let's talk about what's going on with Sarah Palin. She is not the governor of Alaska anymore. She's rumored to be setting up shop in Orange County. What will she be doing there?

PENNER: Well, there is a feeling among some—and there's no true evidence of it—that she resigned as Alaska governor in order to lead a rightwing movement, that is ostensibly independent of the major political parties, and certainly you could read that into her remarks, that she was going to free herself from politics as we all know it. So if that's the case, the next question is where would she establish her home and base of operations. Okay, so let me go through a few possibilities.

CAVANAUGH: Yes, yes.

PENNER: The northeast, too liberal. The south, too connected to racial politics, and there's too much competition for conservative leadership there and not enough big money. Washington, D.C., well, that's like the enemy camp. And the midwest doesn't have enough access to the media. Maybe Texas but I don't think she'd want to compete with power with the Bush clan. So Florida's a possibility but then she'd have to compete with conservatives, both Jeb Bush and Charlie Crist. And so what does that leave and you kind of already telegraphed it, didn't you? That leaves California, and specifically Southern California, and more specifically Orange County because it's rich, it's conservative, it's close to Los Angeles' enormous media network, so at this point California does not have a nationally known conservative political figure and so maybe we're going to see Sarah Palin settle as our neighbor to the north.

CAVANAUGH: Well, we'll keep – we'll – Keep us posted on that, okay, Gloria?

PENNER: Yes, I'll be a Palin watcher.

CAVANAUGH: All right, great. I've been speaking with Gloria Penner, KPBS political correspondent, host of Editors Roundtable and San Diego Week. You can read her weekly blog, Political Fix, on our website at KPBS.org. And, Gloria, thanks for speaking with us.

PENNER: You're welcome, Maureen.

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