Sarah Palin racked up a pretty impressive win-loss record in this year's Republican primaries, with her endorsement propelling women from the back of the pack to victory in at least three states -- Nevada, Delaware and South Carolina. For a Republican Party badly in need of diversity, the entry of more women into high-profile political races is a welcome development and the result of what some call the "Palin effect,"
a generation of women inspired by the former Alaska governor's rapid ascent on the national stage.
I spent part of last week at Samford University
in Birmingham, Ala., a school affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. Most of Samford's students are from religiously and politically conservative backgrounds, and so I assumed that the young women in particular would be big fans of Palin, taking their political cues from Palin's Twitter feed. To my surprise, this wasn't the case.
When I asked the president of the Samford Young Republicans what she thought about the "mama grizzlies," the Palin-endorsed women candidates, she responded without equivocation: "I can't stand Sarah Palin." Leanna Cannafax, 21 and a senior, didn't always feel that way. She wanted a strong woman to challenge what she calls "the white male mentality" that prevails in the GOP. And she was excited at first when Palin was picked for the ticket in '08, but then came the letdown, "all the stuff about pigs and lipstick that I couldn't relate to."
Since then, her disappointment in Palin has deepened. "It's hard for me to relate to her even though she's Republican and conservative. As a young woman, I have to be open-minded to things I don't agree with, and I feel she doesn't even listen."
Cannafax's dad was in the military and she's lived in a lot of places other than Birmingham, including Iceland and several overseas posts, which may explain her open-minded attitudes in a school that is seen as the most Christian religious college in the country "without being weird," as one member of the community put it. (In other words, it's not Bob Jones University.) Samford is a highly respected liberal arts school, and its students are part of an evangelical generation that is in sympathy with many moderate to left-of-center positions on the environment and immigration reform, which Palin's reflexive conservatism doesn't address.
The good news is that Palin hasn't dampened Cannafax's interest in politics. "I was that little girl who when you asked what I wanted to be said congresswoman," she said. "Now I'm trying to watch my Facebook pictures."
I visited Samford as part of the Woodrow Wilson Fellows
program that places people from different walks of life at various small liberal-arts campuses for the better part of a week. My encounters with students are anecdotal but suggest that Palin may not be the runaway favorite among young people -- and among the voters -- that her wall-to-wall media coverage implies. In a class of University Fellows, an academically gifted group, a young woman from Iowa, a dead ringer for Reese Witherspoon in "Legally Blonde," challenged me when I said that if Palin ran for president, she would likely win the Iowa caucuses, which kick off the primary season. No, this woman said, Iowans are not impressed with celebrity. Palin would have to prove herself like everybody else with repeated visits to the state, the kind of nose-to-the-grindstone campaigning that tweeting can't replace.
I don't pretend to have taken a scientific poll, but getting outside the Beltway and inside a small Southern campus made me wonder if Palin's biggest constituency is the media, not voters, and whether she makes a better story than she does role model.