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The Wikipedian Candidate

Jane Mayer’s articulation of how Sarah Palin came to be the Republican nominee for Vice President is worth a thorough read. This passage in particular caught my eye:

In February, 2007, Adam Brickley gave himself a mission: he began searching for a running mate for McCain who could halt the momentum of the Democrats. Brickley, a self-described “obsessive” political junkie who recently graduated from the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, told me that he began by “randomly searching Wikipedia and election sites for Republican women.” Though he generally opposes affirmative action, gender drove his choice. “People were talking about Hillary at the time,” he recalled. Brickley said that he “puzzled over every Republican female politician I knew.” Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, of Texas, “waffled on social issues”; Senator Olympia Snowe, of Maine, was too moderate. He was running out of options, he recalled, when he said to himself, “What about that lady who just got elected in Alaska?” Online research revealed that she had a strong grassroots following; as Brickley put it, “I hate to use the words ‘cult of personality,’ but she reminded me of Obama.”

What’s funny is that I recall having nearly the same experience as Brickley (who founded a blog on Palin some 20 months ago). In researching some of the lesser-known Republican VP candidates, I came across her Wikipedia page and remember coming away fairly impressed: working mother, extremely popular in Alaska, photogenic (to say the least), more than conservative enough to please the base, but seemingly quirky and endearing enough to have significant cross-over appeal.

The problem is that Palin’s faults have been precisely those sorts of things that might be difficult to detect from a Wikipedia page. For instance: her tendency to let her nerves get the better of her in interviews, her seeming lack of intellectual curiosity, and the way that her mannerisms, fairly or not, could easily become the butt of jokes. When I saw her debut event in Dayton, I was underwhelmed, asking “how will SNL and Jay Leno react?” and declaring that “this is a pick that looks better on paper than in practice”.

Certainly, I was looking very wrong for a period of two or three weeks, when Palin had a honeymoon period during and immediately after the GOP convention — one which was buoyed in no small part by the skeptical reactions of elites like me. Steve Schmidt masterfully parlayed those sorts of reactions to turn Palin into a sympathetic figure, playing both off the elite’s paranoia that they don’t understand the public, and the public’s omnipresent desire to backlash against the elites. So ironically, even as Palin’s early performances (such as her speech in St. Paul) were vastly overrated by the media, the public was convinced that she wasn’t being given a fair shake.

Fortunately, the voting public is a bit more sophisticated than the media lets on. And Palin has not proven to have much staying power. In six polls conducted entirely since the VP debate was conducted on October 2nd, Palin’s net favorability ratings are a -19 (the least Research 2000 tracker), a -9 (CBS/NYT), a +4 (Newsweek), a +7 (NBC/WSJ), a +8 (Rasmussen) and a +15 (CNN). Those ratings average out to a +1, which is pretty much a disaster for a candidate who’s calling card is supposed to be her likability.

The other irony of Mayer’s article is that Palin was not the first choice of either McCain (who preferred Joe Lieberman) nor Steve Schmidt (who preferred Mitt Romney). She was the compromise choice after those names were vetoed during the deliberation process — not necessarily the best candidate, but the least unacceptable. Rarely does quality emerge from such a process of elimination — ask yourself why wedding music is so bad, or airline food is so bland — and this was no exception. In certain ways, Palin is the latest manifestation of what I call death-by-focus-group, a phenomenon made infamous by the Ford Edsel and by New Coke. In a post-Wikiepdia universe, in which the quantity of information may too easily be conflated for its quality, such mistakes may be all the easier to succumb to.

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