US 2012 presidential race: Sarah Palin is back

The race for the Republican candidate for Election 2012 is finally getting exciting, and not before

The Republican race for 2012 just got way more interesting. Yes, Sarah Palin is back – launching her "One Nation" bus tour this weekend, with a series of high-profile events across the country. She's already bought a house in Arizona and made some significant new appointments to her staff. Now her specially decorated red-white-and-blue bus will be touring the north-east, trying to recapture some of the political momentum that she has allowed to drift away.

"As we look to the future," proclaims her website, "we are propelled by America's past." Well, that certainly obeys the laws of mechanics. And if you click on her page, you get an automatic message asking for donations – to help "promote the Fundamental Restoration of America".

Since Donald Trump formally bowed out, it's been Newt Gingrich who's provided some of the lighter moments, what with his comments about Paul Ryan's Medicare plan being "radical" and "right-wing social engineering". Then there was his $500,000 bill from Tiffany's: a rather unfortunate start for a candidate promoting the merits of fiscal conservatism.

Now, though – as Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Michelle Bachmann prepare to make their formal announcements next week – we might have a race that's worth watching.

Polar star

But is Palin really a serious candidate, or just a sideshow? Fairly serious, according to the polls, though polls don't reveal much at this stage, given that many of the potential 2012 field are hardly household names. However, the latest survey, by Gallup, shows that the former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney shares top billing with Palin among Republican voters, with other candidates left trailing in their wake.

The polls also show that she is one of the GOP's most polarising figures: overwhelming numbers of independent voters say they'd never vote for her, while more than a third of Republican supporters think likewise. Most people still think she's nowhere near qualified enough to be president – and attitudes like that are hard to break, when your character and track record are as public as Palin's.

But where her talents definitely lie is in self-publicity: the woman positively radiates self-confidence, and her rivals must be worried that she'll suck up all the oxygen of this campaign. None more so than Michelle Bachmann, the other right-wing Republican woman with her eyes on the White House, courting a conservative, Tea Party activist base.

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The Minnesota congresswoman is gearing up to announce her candidacy in Iowa next week – in the appropriately named town of Waterloo. She's just been holding an intensive fundraising drive, collecting an impressive $250,000 in a single day. But guess who's hogging the headlines? Palin.

According to the governor of Iowa, Terry Branstad: "We've never really had two dynamic women running for president in the Republican caucuses. I think it would be really interesting." Was that a euphemism for something? Is there even room for both?

Unlike Bachmann, Palin has yet to indicate anything definite about a possible run. She's still employed by Fox News, which has swiftly terminated the contracts of other presidential hopefuls – prompting Mike Huckabee, for one, to choose well-paid punditry over a far more nebulous political ambition.

And even though Romney's poll numbers show that he's steadily building quite a commanding lead among potential voters (not to mention a vast war chest of million-buck donations), many Republican luminaries are still searching for that magic someone who can capture the public imagination and heal the fractious divisions between the party establishment and its unruly Tea Party wing.

And if that's not Mr Romney, it sure isn't the Marmite of political candidates, Sarah Palin. Cue the flurry of speculation around the likes of Chris Christie, Rick Perry – even Jeb Bush.

At least the race is finally getting exciting, and not before time.

Felicity Spector is a deputy programme editor for Channel 4 News.

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.