In Jeffrey Alexander’s The Performance of Politics: Obama’s Victory and the Democratic Struggle For Power, Alexander argues that candidates must “channel the energy of human of contact” by becoming a collective representation. Even in the digital age, the social energy that is generated by a collective representation candidate shaking hands, interacting with voters on a one-on-one basis, and speaking in public allows that energy to be projected back onto society. Doing so allows the excitement generated by enthusiastic, electrified crowds to be “digitized and circulated,” thus translating into performative and political success.
The energy and enthusiasm in the 2008 election cycle clearly resided with the Democrats. During 2008 then-Sen. Barack Obama attracted all of the headlines from the major national media outlets. His speeches dazzled voters and reporters alike; his message of “hope” and “change” spoke to millions who had become disaffected by eight years of George W. Bush’s presidency; and his candidacy was the first real chance for an African American to be elected to the White House. The country was looking for a messiah candidate that could inspire and uplift rather than resort to petty campaign tactics of the past that consisted of fear mongering and attack advertisements.
Alexander states that if political success depends on becoming a collective representation, political failure emerges from not being able to be one. Before choosing Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate, Sen. John McCain had a very difficult time energizing his core constituency: older, white, and predominately male voters. Much of McCain’s base viewed him as socially liberal and ever-changing positions on issues depending on which way the political winds were blowing. Unlike their Democratic counterparts, many Republicans were apathetic about voting in the 2008 election for McCain and did not feel connected to or inspired by their chosen candidate. According to Alexander, while Obama’s rallies regularly drew five or even six-figure attendance numbers, McCain struggled for four. In order to emerge as a formidable contender to Obama and have a respectable shot at being elected, McCain’s campaign knew they had to shake things up. Enter: Gov. Sarah Palin.
Before McCain chose Palin to be his running mate, he was intent on naming friend and fellow-senator Joe Lieberman to the ticket. Lieberman, a former vice presidential candidate eight years prior under Gore, was an independent, who left the Democratic Party in 2006. However, McCain was scared off by his campaign advisors who warned that choosing Lieberman, a pro-choice politician, would outrage social conservatives in the party. McCain reluctantly agreed that a different choice would have to be made.
Other possible choices for a running-mate included: former Gov. Mitt Romney, of Massachusetts, former Representative Rob Portman, of Ohio, or then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty, of Minnesota. All of the choices were seen as “too conventional” by the campaign. McCain’s aides settled on Sarah Palin. Her resume seemed to be too perfect. She was a governor, female, and wasn’t connected to Washington at all. While there was concern that she was a novice, McCain’s advisors told him,” If you pick anyone else, you’re going to lose. But if you pick Palin you may win.”
The selection of Palin thrilled the Republican base. Her story and appeal to people in the party and around the country who shared her convictions and resentments was profound. 37 million tuned in for her keynote address at the Republican National Convention. She attracted thousands to speeches and connected with voters in a way that McCain could only dream of doing. However, the new darling of the Republican party’s popularity began to diminish after a string of embarrassing interviews and lack of knowledge on world and economic matters.
If we are to define Sarah Palin as the right choice for McCain’s vice presidential candidate according to Alexander’s collective representation, she more than succeeded. Palin generated media attention and attracted praise and criticism beyond what is usually given to a vice-presidential nominee. It is logical to assume, as popular post-election wisdom did, that her impact on the outcome of the election was also greater than previous running mates. She channeled the powerful energy of her audiences and gave McCain the necessary exposure in the media that was needed for him to be seen as a viable candidate.