article

06.07.10

Palin's California Rescue

Carly Fiorina is a near lock in today’s Republican Senate primary—and she can thank Sarah Palin for her big lead. Joe Mathews on how the Alaskan managed to prove so influential in, of all places, California.

LOS ANGELES—She may not be the governor of Alaska anymore. But after Tuesday, Sarah Palin should be able to call herself—without moosey bombast—the queenmaker of California.

Palin’s endorsement was crucial to the late surge in the polls that appears all but certain to carry former Hewlett-Packard chief Carly Fiorina to the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate. Fiorina would face three-term incumbent Barbara Boxer this fall.

What did Palin do for Fiorina, exactly? Wilson’s explanation is simple: “People were trying to figure out who the conservative was in the race,” he says. The endorsement of Palin provided that clarity.

How important was Palin’s support? “At least an 8" on a scale of 10, said one Fiorina aide. The campaign’s own polls show Fiorina taking her first lead at the moment a mailer touting Palin’s endorsement hit California households.

A Fiorina victory would be particularly sweet for Palin, who came under harsh criticism from the right for backing Fiorina instead of another conservative with deeper ties to the Tea Party movement, Assemblyman Chuck DeVore. It also would show that Palin can make an impact even in the sort of big, coastal urban states she has derided as something less than real America.

How could Palin prove so influential in, of all places, California?

It turns out that the former governor, while viewed mostly unfavorably by the California population as a whole, is guns-and-church-on-Sunday popular among the relatively small number of Republican regulars who reliably show up and vote in primaries. In the Fiorina campaign polling, Palin was viewed favorably by more than 80 percent of these voters.

Fiorina, caught in a three-person race with a well-known moderate, former Rep. Tom Campbell, and Tea Party-style conservative DeVore, needed to prove to these conservative voters she was one of them—and not a socially moderate interloper from Silicon Valley.

So Fiorina’s campaign made a priority of reaching out early to Palin’s circle. The two women had never met, though they shared the bond of having worked on John McCain’s presidential campaign. (Fiorina stumped for him, though her role was reduced after she went off message on the question of health-insurance coverage for Viagra.)

Once Fiorina’s team convinced Palin that their candidate was conservative, both on fiscal and social issues (Fiorina is pro-life, though many voters assume otherwise), Palin committed to the endorsement. Fiorina’s campaign kept the endorsement in their “hip pocket” until early May.

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Palin was criticized heavily when she announced the endorsement via her Facebook account on May 6. “Is she jumping the shark?” asked the blog Red State about Palin’s decision to back Fiorina over DeVore.

But as word spread of Palin’s decision, Fiorina began to gain more support. The campaign’s daily tracking polls, which began in early May, show the jump. In those early polls, Fiorina was essentially tied with Campbell, a moderate on social issues.

The week of May 17, a mailer touring Palin’s endorsement of Fiorina began arriving in approximately 900,000 Republican households. A nightly tracking poll that week showed a 13-point surge in Fiorina’s support on a single evening—the beginning of a surge that hasn’t stopped.

That evening, Joe Shumate, a Fiorina consultant, sent a one-word email to colleagues upon seeing the results: “Bingo.”

“I’ve never seen numbers jump like that,” Fiorina campaign manager Marty Wilson, who has been working in California politics for more than a generation, said in an interview Monday.

The surveys show Palin’s remarkable ability to command attention, even when her views are communicated via the sort of unsolicited, annoying direct mail that most people throw away.

A Fiorina campaign “brushfire poll” (a term indicating a poll with more questions than a daily tracking survey but fewer questions than a full-dress benchmark poll) showed that 39 percent of those surveyed had received and remembered the Palin mail piece.

“If you saw 20 percent recall of a mailer, that would be pretty phenomenal,” said Wilson.

Fiorina’s campaign also capitalized by adding the endorsement to TV ads and increasing the size of their buy, from $850,000 to $1.1 million. Recent public polls show Fiorina, who had trailed for most of the year, with a lead of more than 20 points.

What did Palin do for Fiorina, exactly? Wilson’s explanation is simple: “People were trying to figure out who the conservative was in the race,” he says. The endorsement of Palin provided that clarity.

Joe Mathews is a journalist, an Irvine senior fellow at the New America Foundation, and a contributing writer at the Los Angeles Times. He is the author of The People's Machine: Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Rise of Blockbuster Democracy and co-author of the new book, California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix it.