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Why Sarah Palin’s Endorsement of Donald Trump Matters

January 20, 2016, 7:44 PM UTC
Donald Trump Makes Campaign Swing Through Iowa
AMES, IA - JANUARY 19: Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin speaks at Hansen Agriculture Student Learning Center at Iowa State University on January 19, 2016 in Ames, IA. Palin endorsed Donald Trump's run for the Republican presidential nomination. (Photo by Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images)
Photograph by Aaron P. Bernstein—Getty Images

Some context is required if you want to understand the endorsement of Donald Trump that Sarah Palin delivered Tuesday evening with her, uh, unique flair.

The first thing to know is that Trump is the first presidential frontrunner in modern history to carry a lead this far into the calendar without securing a single endorsement from a top sitting elected official in his party.

Let’s just restate that: Out of the 319 Republicans currently holding the most powerful offices in the land — 54 senators, 234 congressmen, and 31 governors — precisely no one has endorsed Trump, the GOP’s leading candidate for the presidency, less than two weeks before voting begins in Iowa.

As we wrote over the weekend, this is hardly the norm. Typically, those endorsements matter a lot, but not necessarily because they directly translate into the support of primary voters. Often, they act as a signal to party apparatchiks and donors that a candidate is gathering a critical mass of approval from the elected elite. And when the rest of the party machinery consequently begins to align behind that figure, the signal becomes self-fulfilling—voters sense where the officialdom is headed and rally. This process has played out consistently in just about every primary dating back to 1980.

So Trump’s success to date despite the wholesale rejection of his candidacy by his own party’s elected class implies just how different this race is. For someone who owes his support to his outsider status, blessings from the establishment are irrelevant at best, even potentially damaging.

Enter Sarah Palin on Tuesday. She was hardly an avatar of the entrenched order in 2008, when as governor of Alaska she was plucked from relative obscurity to fill out Sen. John McCain’s ticket. But since then, she’s done a sort of reverse version of the journey Trump hopes to complete, from elected pol to polarizing reality star of far-right media. As such, Palin’s backing only matters insofar as it gives to Trump support from whatever is left of her following. And that likely pales next to what more prominent voices on talk-radio and online—think Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, and Glenn Beck—can deliver as Trump battles Texas Sen. Ted Cruz for the contest’s conservative mantle.

While Palin’s announcement made for interesting television, her argument for Trump probably didn’t win many hearts and minds on its merits. After all, it sounded more like the sort of untethered gibberish someone would shout in the middle of a fever dream than a high-wattage political address carried live by all three major cable networks. Trump himself at times appeared uncomfortable as he looked on.

But Palin helped Trump dominate another news cycle. Trump used the airtime his endorsement provided to deliver a history of his rocket-ride to the front of the pack and a recapitulation of his priorities. This close to the Iowa caucuses, that alone has real value.