It sure looks like she’s running.
Sarah Palin, who until recently was absolutely, positively not running for president, according to Beltway pundits, suddenly looks like she’s doing exactly that. The biggest hint so far: a feature-length film that touts her record as governor and aims to lay to rest lingering worries about her widely criticized decision to resign as governor of Alaska. Scott Conroy of RealClearPolitics has seen a rough cut of the film, which was made by conservative filmmaker Stephen K. Bannon and will premiere in Iowa next month. Bannon, best known for a film about the Tea Party movement, Generation Zero, that aired on Fox News, has invested $1 million dollars of his own money into the Palin project, titled The Undefeated.
The film aims to reintroduce Palin to the country in the run-up to the 2012 GOP primary, but is seen as weak by many establishment Republicans. According to people appearing in the documentary, The Undefeated focuses on her work on oil and gas legislation and her attempts to clean up the culture of corruption in Juneau during a time when several state legislators were being sent to jail in oil-corruption scandals. But it also glosses over issues like Troopergate, which Palin’s GOP rivals would undoubtedly bring up.
One of the most intriguing aspects of the film is how it was kept secret until now. Some interviewed in the movie said they weren’t asked to keep it under wraps, while others were told not to say anything and indicated they knew it would have more impact if no one knew it was coming.
The Undefeated uses news footage from the Alaska NBC affiliate KTUU, and Steve MacDonald, the news director, said he was aware the footage had been purchased and was being used for a Palin documentary. He said they often sell Palin footage to news stations and production houses in the Lower 48, but he was alerted by the archivist of the unusually large purchase request. In addition to Palin video, producers bought footage related to the oil industry and the Exxon Valdez oil spill. MacDonald said he “didn’t get the impression” they were trying to be secretive about the purchase and that KTUU always asks what the footage will be used for if anyone besides a television network is doing the purchasing.
“What you would likely see if Palin were to run is an unconventional and modern campaign focusing on mass communications, Internet contact, and mass assemblies as opposed to the more traditional one-on-five coffees,” one insider said.
Conversations with several of the people who sat down with Bannon for the film made clear that they believe the movie could seriously change negative perceptions of Palin and reframe her story the way they see it, rather than the way they believe the press has negatively portrayed her. Not all of them have seen the film, but those who had seen a rough cut were even more enthusiastic about it.
Former spokesperson Meg Stapleton is one of the lead voices in the documentary and stresses that most of the country doesn’t know what Palin accomplished in Alaska. “If someone gives it a chance and watches it, watches the film, I think they will be surprised at the caricature that’s been drawn and the contrast to reality,” Stapleton told The Daily Beast. “I just think every aspect of it is so powerful, you cannot walk away from this film looking at Sarah Palin the same way. You just can’t.”
Conservative provocateur and author of Righteous Indignation, Andrew Breitbart said he jumped at the chance to participate in the film, and has seen it. “It goes to incredible lengths to point to how everybody, including the Democratic Party, accepted the fact that she was fiercely independent and went against not just the Republican establishment, but went against ExxonMobil and in heroic fashion,” Breitbart told The Daily Beast. “It goes through the history of how she got elected, why she got elected, and why she had an 88 percent approval rating.”
Former family attorney Tom Van Flein, who also appears in the documentary, said it’s “refreshing to see a view of Governor Palin’s accomplishments that focuses on policy and substance.” He described his role as putting “into context the ethics complaints, the resolution of the ethics complaints, and the factors leading up to her resignation.” Former Republican state senator Gene Therriault and Wasilla Deputy Mayor Judy Patrick are also both in the film, but haven’t seen it yet.
The movie will debut in Iowa next month, so what do Iowans think about a potential Palin presidential bid? Polls in the state have been mixed, but if she does launch a campaign, Iowa will be incredibly important for her and is clearly one reason The Undefeated is being rolled out there.
Despite Palin’s ability to draw a massive crowd wherever she goes, some Iowans like Craig Robinson, former political director of the Republican Party of Iowa, think she hasn’t put in the shoe leather that they believe is necessary and a movie won’t change that, despite her ability to raise money and her name recognition. “It’s not like she can walk in here, turn on the light switch, and win it,” Robinson said. “She has a lot of work to do and I think if her plan is to descend into Iowa with a shock-and-awe campaign, she’s also going to have to do the hard work that all the other candidates are currently doing themselves.”
But a person familiar with a potential Palin campaign describes a different approach. “What you would likely see if Palin were to run is an unconventional and modern campaign focusing more on mass communications, internet contact, and mass assemblies as opposed to the more traditional one-on-five coffees,” the insider said.
Such efforts appear to be getting underway this weekend, with a just-announced bus tour beginning in Washington, D.C., on Sunday. The tour will stop at historical sites across the country and in early voting states.
Among several political observers and those who know Palin well in Alaska, the immediate response to the news of the film was surprise. Longtime political observer and pollster David Dittman thinks issues like Troopergate won’t go away just because they are dismissed by Bannon’s film. Dittman pointed out that the oil and gas legislation The Undefeated focuses on is now being harshly criticized in the state; members of the Alaska legislature now want to repeal the oil tax increase because they believe it is hurting the economy and preventing oil companies from drilling and conducting oil exploration in the state.
At the end of film, the concluding section is introduced with a caption that reads, "From here, I can see November." It’s a clear sign Palin is going for it, but Stapleton—who said she would support either decision Palin makes—says her former boss understands the microscope she’ll be under better than anyone if she does jump in. “The scrutiny is unreal and no one can better understand that than Sarah Palin, and she needs to decide for herself what’s best for every aspect of her life.”
Shushannah Walshe covers politics for The Daily Beast. She is the coauthor of Sarah From Alaska: The Sudden Rise and Brutal Education of a New Conservative Superstar. She was a reporter and producer at the Fox News Channel from August 2001 until the end of the 2008 presidential campaign.