Kingmaker, powerbroker, digital celebrity – by whatever name, and there have been many – Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin herald the dawn of a rising phenomenon. Their ability to use virtually every form of new and old media, from television to Twitter, Facebook, and blogs, to reach large audiences in the service of personal yet political messages is something new on the political landscape, say many political strategists and historians.
This power to persuade by personal conviction without apparent elective ambition was on display yet again Saturday night. In a joint rally in Anchorage, Alaska, the two flirted with one another. Ms. Palin coyly asked, “You gonna run?” and Mr. Beck later said, “We would like to announce that in 2012 we will both be … voting.” While they breezed through a menu of top "tea party" issues, from God to the lack of moral leadership from the Obama administration, neither would lay claim to real political aspirations.
Such powerful “candidates without portfolio” are truly a creation of today’s hyper-media-saturated communication landscape, says branding expert Mark Stevens. “We’ve never had people as powerful as Beck and Palin who aren’t politicians with complete access to the entire country every day,” he says. “Who can we equate them to? Nobody,” he says. “It’s a unique phenomenon.”
While Palin ranked first in a July Gallup poll of top Republican presidential candidates, at 76 percent, her – and Beck’s – real motivations are less clear, says political scientist Stephen Medvic, author of the 2009 book “Campaigns/Elections: Players and Processes.” Running for president is much dirtier and less financially rewarding than what either of them is doing now, he notes.
“We saw back in 2004 that candidates such as Howard Dean could get a lot of attention with his ability to marshal social media, but ultimately it didn’t translate to the kind of traditional grass-roots organizing that will produce votes,” says Mr. Medvic. What’s going on now, he says, is that both Beck and Palin are exploring their ability to frame the debate and drive the issues for the election. The story will only be half over when all the various primaries are done, he says.
“We have to see in the general election and in key races,” says Medvic of the effect Palin's endorsement will have on candidates. It has been a mixed blessing to date, with Palin-backed candidates losing in Kansas, Washington, Wyoming, and Georgia. But, he adds, “if some do well in the general election, then her stock can continue to rise.”
Both Palin and Beck are in a wait-and-see mode, says Jerry Kremer, a 23-year veteran of the New York State Assembly and founder of Empire Government Strategies, a political consulting firm. “Beck is a work in progress, testing whether or not he has the power to influence the national debate,” he says. Palin “takes the oxygen out of every other candidate by her charisma,” he says. “She can take a walk around the block and get media coverage.”
The midterm elections will reveal what kind of base Palin would have to tap in a future presidential run, Mr. Kremer says, suggesting that her endorsements are like money in the bank. “Politicians are all about who owes who what,” he says, “and if the people she endorses win big, then she will have a wide net of people to tap when it comes to the necessary organizations to run a national campaign,” he says. "Right now, though," he says, "I don’t see her building the kind of foot soldiers that would involve.”
However, social media is a potent indicator, says Sherrie Madia, author of the upcoming book “Social Media Survival Guide for Political Campaigns.”
“If either or both plan to toss a hat in the ring, it's a hat that sits atop a well-established online presence,” she says via email. Madia points out that as of this writing, Beck has 1,444,451 fans on Facebook, to Palin's 2,209,729. In the Twittersphere, Palin has approximately 250,000 followers to Beck's 288,000-plus. Palin has a fundraising channel via www.SarahPAC.com. All this gives her more lead time than candidates still undecided who have not yet established this baseline.
“While quantity alone is never the end-game when it comes to social media, it certainly bodes well for any potential candidate to have established bandwith long before any official announcement is made,” she adds.