Donald Trump is hinting that somebody big is going to stand on stage with him at a rally tonight in Ames, Iowa.
“I will have a major announcement and a very special guest in attendance,” Mr. Trump tweeted over the weekend, sending the GOP social mediasphere into speculation overdrive.
Will that special guest be Sarah Palin? That’s the punditry’s leading theory at the moment. The evidence for this is fairly thin, consisting of an alleged private plane flight from Alaska to Iowa, and little else. But some folks who might know think that’s the case, and hey, it does make sense on a basic level. Mrs. Palin and Trump have mutually complimented each other in the past. She’s still famous enough – particularly among Republicans – that her nod would rate as a “major” move.
“Does anybody know where @SarahPalinUSA plans to be on Tuesday?” tweeted Bloomberg Politics bigwig Mark Halperin on Monday.
But here’s the $64 billion-dollar question: Would a Palin endorsement help or hurt The Donald?
In the short run, it would certainly produce a lot of news coverage. Trump’s a master at that, and this would be another masterstroke – landing Palin only days before actual voting starts in Iowa’s caucuses.
Palin might also help Trump fight the perception that he’s really a liberal who just happens to be tough on immigration. That’s the essence of the “New York values” attack that Ted Cruz leveled at Trump during last week’s debate.
But here’s the kicker: Yes, she’s still famous, but she’s not nearly the Republican star she used to be. She might need Trump more than Trump needs her.
Since her 2008 heyday, Palin’s net favorability ratings have slumped more than 40 points, noted the data journalism site FiveThirtyEight in mid-2015. Among the electorate as a whole, she’s unpopular – subtract unfavorable views from favorable, and the result is -24, according to 538. She’s still popular with the GOP – her favorable number in the party is plus 24 – but that’s still a lot lower than it used to be.
More to that point, pollsters have generally stopped asking about her, because she’s no longer that big a political force.
“Palin has receded from the national spotlight to the extent that we have very little data since 2012,” wrote FiveThirtyEight’s Harry Enten back in June.
And for Palin, a Trump endorsement might be controversial. Her own Facebook page is already a tussle between supporters who would follow whomever she picks and supporters who believe she should back someone with more conservative bona fides, particularly Ted Cruz.
“Please don’t back Trump ... please ... You know who the real conservative is ... Do the right thing!” wrote one follower on Tuesday in a typical comment.
Some conservative media figures are making that same argument. Palin has long portrayed herself as the true red Mama Grizzly, but she’s now passing up the chance to back real conservatives in favor of the person who’s an obvious righty-come-lately, in this view.
“For those who expected or thought that Sarah Palin was about something larger than herself, today will be the bitter culmination of a long, slow, sad descent,” writes Leon Wolf today at the conservative site Red State.
It’s unlikely Trump cares about this debate, of course. He’s simply floated above all the criticism that he’s a RINO. When Ted Cruz brought up the “New York values” charge, Trump hit back effectively with a paean to the city’s toughness in the wake of 9/11.
He and Palin have long traded kind words via the media, so he’ll welcome her backing. For Trump, who appears to running for president on instinct, it’s probably as simple as that.