Sarah Palin was picked by John McCain as his vice presidential nominee because he saw her as the quintessential Everywoman — a person who soccer moms throughout America could relate to. Palin’s all-American qualities included a large family, a love of hunting and a taste for moose burgers. The national press began to immediately lap up all of Palin’s quirks and interests, while also pointing out that she had a rather thin résumé for a vice presidential candidate.
In time, Palin made enough mistakes to draw press attention away from her compelling narrative and toward her lack of experience. The disastrous Katie Couric interviews sealed the image of Palin as clearly out of her depth. Yet few in the media challenged the notion that Palin still possessed personal qualities that made her at least culturally similar to the typical suburban voter. But a closer look reveals that Palin may have been a bit more outside the mainstream than imagined.
The great historian Frederick Jackson Turner — famous for the “frontier thesis” — differentiated places in America based on the degree to which they were settled or, in the parlance of the day, “civilized.” In Turner’s thesis, the U.S. contained both a “heartland” and a frontier of settlement. Turner presented his thesis in 1893 — timed to coincide with a census bulletin that noted the frontier’s passing. Three years later, Turner applied his frontier thesis the hotly contested 1896 election between Democrat William Jennings Bryan and Republican William McKinley. Specifically, Turner described Bryan, who hailed from the then-barely settled Nebraska, as representing the frontier. By contrast, McKinley came from the heartland state of Ohio. McKinley of course won the election, as did a string of fellow Ohioans in the late 19th century.
As governor of America’s “last frontier,” Palin is certainly the 2008 campaign’s frontier candidate. Many of her life experiences and her basic frame of reference are a bit exotic to those living in the Lower 48 — down in civilization. Many of these traits are cute in an offbeat, “Northern Exposure” sort of way, but there is also the flip side of the frontier, or the Jack London, “Call of the Wild” dimension. Nature in the frontier needs subduing, and Palin seems eager to get at that task. Most notably, Palin is openly hostile to the popular furry animals, such as polar bears and wolves, that populate Alaska’s wilderness.
This part of Palin’s record as governor became a problem when a 527 group picked up on the fact that she supports aerial hunting of wolves. A heavily rotated commercial from this group was devastating, showing defenseless wolves being picked off from the sky as they bite their backs in agony. Wolves are a costly problem to ranchers in Alaska because they prey on their livestock, but the problem for Palin is that they also strongly resemble Huskies. This image probably did not sit well with a dog-loving suburban mom whose idea of nature is a large-lot subdivision in the exurbs, where Huskies are always the stars of the dog park. In this one commercial, Palin goes from a goofy, fun-loving mom to a brutalizer of man’s best friend. The focus groups on this ad must have been off the charts.
As the campaign dragged on, Palin’s frequent hunting references wore a bit thin. Alec MacGillis of The Washington Post reported on a Palin rally in New Hampshire where an attempt to bond with the local moose hunters in the crowd fell flat. He noted that only 500 permits to hunt moose are issued in the state every year. Again, this notion that a typical mom bags big game in her spare time is a frontier worldview and may not play in Peoria, Ill., or even in the now more populous Peoria, Ariz. It’s a good bet that even John McCain’s working-class hero, Joe the Plummer, never shot a moose.
The message to candidates picking a running mate based on his or her Everyman appeal — stick with the heartland. Several years back, New York Times columnist David Brooks coined the term “Patio Man” as a descriptor for residents of emerging suburbs. Were Palin a Patio Woman, the only hunting she would likely be experienced with would be tracking down parking spaces in a mall. That’s the kind of hunting that most Americans — or the 83 percent of us living in metropolitan areas — can easily relate to.
Robert E. Lang is co-director of the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech University, in Alexandria, Va., and an associate professor in urban affairs and planning in Virginia Tech’s School of Planning and International Affairs.
The Truth About Aerial Hunting of Wolves in Alaska