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Palin Mini-Scandal: Not the “Other Shoe”

The Associated Press reports that Alaska investigators have found “probable cause” to believe that Sarah Palin improperly used private donations to pay off her legal debts. The somewhat confusing item is here.

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — An independent investigator has found evidence that Gov. Sarah Palin may have violated ethics laws by accepting private donations to pay her legal debts.

The report obtained by The Associated Press says Palin is securing unwarranted benefits and receiving improper gifts through the Alaska Fund Trust, set up by supporters.

An investigator for the state Personnel Board says in his July 14 report that there is probable cause to believe Palin used or attempted to use her official position for personal gain because she authorized the creation of the trust as the “official” legal defense fund.

The fund aims to help Palin pay off debts stemming from multiple ethics complaints against her, most of which have been dismissed. Palin says she owes more than $500,000 in legal fees.

A while ago, I came up with a test called the EMPSCAT to evaluate the impact of minor political scandals based on a five-question battery. The more of these questions are answered in the affirmative, the more likely that a minor political scandal will blow up into a major political scandal. Let’s see how this one does based on what we know so far:

1. Can the scandal be reduced to a one-sentence soundbyte (but not easily refuted/denied with a one-sentence soundbyte)?

No, not really. In fact, the Associated Press had some trouble summing it up in a five-sentence article. And if there were ever a scandal where the two-world phase “clerical error” were likely to be a reasonably effective defense, it might be this one — at least based on the limited, initial reports.

2. Does the scandal cut against a core element of the candidate’s brand?

No. Although the McCain campaign briefly tried to position her this way, nobody ever took Sarah Palin seriously as some kind of clean-as-a-whistle ethics champion. The strengths of her brand (which are considerable — Palin the brand is much more powerful than Palin the candidate) lie elsewhere.

3. Does the scandal reify/reinforce/”prove” a core negative perception about the candidate, particularly one that had henceforth been difficult to articulate (but not one that has become so entrenched that little further damage can be done)?

Yes, because it will reinforce doubts about the motivations for Palin’s premature and somewhat mystifying resignation from her governorship.

4. Can the scandal readily be employed by the opposition, without their looking hypocritical/petty/politically incorrect, risking retribution, or giving life to a damaging narrative?

Probably not. The public mostly doesn’t like Sarah Palin, but they also don’t like the way she’s treated by liberals and the media. My immediate reaction to this scandal is that it’s right in the danger zone where the media might a fair amount of it, but without there really being enough meat there for it to resonate with the public. With that said, the dynamics are a little topsy-turvy here. Every liberal overreaction to Palin seems to be met with an equal-to-or-greater-than conservative counter-overreaction. It’s also not clear if liberals should really be that worried about annoying conservatives on Sarah Palin, because if that makes conservatives angry enough to nominate her for President, that might ultimately work to liberals’ benefit.

5. Is the media bored, and/or does the story have enough tabloid/shock value to crowd out all other stories?

I might have to modify this rule to read “and/or does the scandal involve Sarah Palin?”. It’s actually a somewhat busy time now, with health care and the Sotomayor nomination and so forth, but a meteor would pretty much have to hit the earth for the media not to amplify a piece of Palin gossip, particularly in the wake of her resignation.

* * *

Expect the phrase “other shoe” to be used a lot today. And mostly, for it to be used mistakenly. The scandal only meets two of the five planks of the EMPSCAT, and I don’t see a great deal of direct political fallout from this unless there are further revelations. Instead, it will more likely become another piece in the proxy war that is constantly being fought on Sarah Palin and will probably continue to be fought until she leaves the national scene.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.