How Sarah Palin Works


2008 GOP running mates Sen. John McCain and Gov. Sarah Palin eat together at Arthur Bryant's Barbeque in Kansas City, Mo., in September 2008. See more pictures of Sarah Palin.
Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

One day in April 1996, Sarah Palin waited in line at a cosmetics counter at the Anchorage, Alaska, JCPenney. She'd fibbed to her husband Todd that she planned on going shopping at Costco. Instead, she made a beeline for JCPenney to see Ivana Trump. As she waited, a local reporter for the Anchorage Daily News who'd come out to cover the publicity event interviewed her. Why did she want to see Ivana Trump? "'We want to see Ivana … because we are so desperate in Alaska for any semblance of glamour and culture,'" she told the reporter [source: Editor and Publisher].

At the time of the interview, Palin was working for her husband's commercial fishing business and nearing the end of her four-year run as a member of the Wasilla­, Alaska, city council. That fall, she would be elected as mayor. A decade after that, she would get a chance to bring a "semblance of glamour and culture" to her state when, as governor, she was featured in the January 2008 issue of Vogue magazine.

Four months later, a pregnant Palin found herself in a ticklish situation when she was in Texas at a conference of the Republican Governors Association. Just before she was scheduled to deliver a speech to her colleagues, her water broke. Palin gave the speech anyway. Immediately afterward, Palin boarded a flight to Seattle, where she changed planes, flew home, and drove an hour to the hospital, where she gave birth to her son, Trig. She was back at work three days later [source: BBC].

This dichotomy between femininity and toughness has captured the admiration of supporters among what had been a divided and stale Republican base in the 2008 presidential campaign. Republican nominee Sen. John McCain's choice of Palin surprised both Democrats and Republicans. She's a moose hunter and fisherwoman, a "hockey mom" (distinguished from a pit bull only by lipstick, as she mentioned at the Republican National Convention), a "Wal-Mart mom" and a politician aiming to shake up the corrupt "old boy's network" [source: Washington Post, USA Today].

But she's also an obscure figure in American politics. Palin's served only two years as governor of Alaska in addition to serving six years as mayor of a town of less than 10,000 people. In this article, find out about her life, career and what qualifies her to serve as vice president.

Sarah Palin Biography

The Palin family (l-r), son Track, daughter Bristol (with boyfriend Levi Johnston), daughter Willow, son Trig, daughter Piper, Sarah and Todd Palin.
The Palin family (l-r), son Track, daughter Bristol (with boyfriend Levi Johnston), daughter Willow, son Trig, daughter Piper, Sarah and Todd Palin.
Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images

Sarah Louise Heath was born Feb. 11, 1964, in Sandpoint, Idaho, to Charles and­ Sally Heath, a science teacher and a school secretary. The Heaths moved to Alaska three months later and raised their children in Wasilla. Sarah attended Wasilla High School, earning the nickname "Sarah Barracuda" for her prowess at basketball. (That nickname would come back into play in 2008, when the McCain-Palin campaign played rock band Heart's 1970s hit "Barracuda" on campaign stops, despite some members of Heart issuing a cease and desist order [source: Telegraph].)

Sarah graduated from high school in 1982 and registered that year as a Republican [source: Biography]. In high school, she also met Todd Palin, the man who would be her husband.

She left Alaska for warmer climes after graduating high school, attending Hawaii Pacific University for a year before transferring to North Idaho College. She attended classes there for a year, then transferred to the University of Idaho to study broadcast news at the journalism school. She studied at that university for another year before heading back to Alaska and taking classes at Matanuska-Sustina College, near her hometown of Wasilla. After taking classes for a semester, she returned to the University of Idaho, where she graduated in 1987 with a degree in journalism [source: AP].

In 1984, during a break from college, Palin was named Miss Wasilla. The title qualified her for the Alaska state beauty pageant, where she was runner-up and voted Miss Congeniality [source: Reuters]. While Palin went to college, Todd remained in Alaska, building a salmon fishing company. After Palin returned, the couple eloped and were married on Aug. 29, 1988. Todd and Palin opted out of the expense of a wedding, Todd said later, "because it was a bad year for fish and they did not have the money" [source: IHT].

Todd has served as Alaska's "First Dude" since Palin was elected governor in 2006. He is a four-time winner of the 2,000 mile (3,200 km) Iron Dog snowmobile race [source: IHT]. Todd Palin maintains his salmon fishing business in the summers and works part time as a production operator for a BP oil field. Sarah worked briefly as a television sports reporter, and the couple owned an ATV dealership for several years [source: CNN].

In 1989, the Palins began their family with the birth of their first son, Track. Track (who was deployed to Iraq in the Army in September 2008) was followed by Palin daughters Bristol (17), Willow (14), Piper (7) and son Trig (8 months). Her last child, Trig was born with Down syndrome. Following the diagnosis, Palin sent an e-mail to relatives written from the perspective of God. "Children are the most precious and promising ingredient in this mixed up world you live in down there on Earth. Trig is no different, except he has one extra chromosome," she wrote [source: Anchorage Daily News]. The Palin children's unusual names are all drawn from the Palins' personal interests. Track was named after Sarah Palin's affinity for running. Bristol, Willow and Trig all bear names after locales around Alaska. Piper is named for the family's small airplane [source: NY Daily News].

Sarah Palin is involved in her children's lives. She once told an Alaskan newspaper that she wouldn't run for the U.S. Senate because it would interfere with her role as a "team mom" [source: Editor and Publisher]. Motherhood found Palin "coaching some basketball on the side," ultimately emerging as a "hockey mom" [source: Palin]. She was also interested in her children's education, serving as a member of the local Parent Teacher Association. This would mark the beginning of her career in elected office.

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Political Career of Sarah Palin

Sarah Palin, mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, in her office in 1996.
Sarah Palin, mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, in her office in 1996.
Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman/AP

Sarah Palin's political career began in earnest in 1992, when she was elected to the W­asilla, Alaska, city council. She served two terms as councilwoman before making a run for the mayor's office by targeting the three-term incumbent as a stale figure who was out of touch with the needs of Wasilla residents. She won the mayoral seat in 1996 at age 32, with 616 of the 1,029 votes cast [source: TPM].

Both critics and supporters in Wasilla remember Palin for bringing "real politics" to the town [source: New York Times]. She ran for mayor on a wider Republican platform of gun rights, a pro-life stance and Christian beliefs in the local, nonpartisan election. In office, she issued what the local press called a "gag order," requiring all city employees to clear interview requests with her office before speaking to the media [source: Time]. She also instituted a policy of asking for help from Washington. Palin traveled to the U.S. capital yearly to lobby for earmarks. She won $29 million in federal funds for the town during her tenure as Wasilla mayor for projects like a commuter rail line [source: Biography].

After becoming mayor, Palin asked for all department heads to submit their resignations: She would choose which to accept [source: Seattle Times]. This included the police chief she'd inherited from the previous mayor, whose loyalty she doubted. After a year, Palin fired the police chief, who sued and later lost after the case was thrown out by a superior court in 2000 [source: Seattle Times]. Palin was criticized in the local media for asking what she later called "rhetorical" questions of the director of Wasilla's library about banning books. The librarian indicated she would not support this kind of censorship and was later fired. After public outcry, Palin withdrew the termination [source: New York Times].

This brand of management took some of Wasilla's residents off guard. In 1997, some residents held a town meeting to discuss recalling her as mayor [source: Anchorage Daily News]. While mayor, Palin cut property taxes and raised the sales tax by one-half cent to pay for a local hockey rink and invested in the public safety department [source: On the Issues]. Ultimately, more voters warmed to Palin: She won the next mayoral election (again facing the former mayor she'd ousted) 826 votes to 255 [source: New York Times].

In 2002, Palin opted not to run for mayor again but instead made an unsuccessful bid for the position of lieutenant governor of Alaska. During her bid for lieutenant governor, Palin used city resources inappropriately, sending out campaign messages from her mayoral e-mail account [source: Bloomberg]. Following her defeat in 2002, she served as chair of the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission from 2003 to 2004. She became known as a whistleblower at that position, turning in a commissioner who later resigned for sending Republican party e-mails from his commission e-mail account [source: Bloomberg].

In December 2006, Palin became the first female governor in Alaska's history. After her election, her husband Todd took a sabbatical from BP over concerns of a conflict of interest. He returned several months later, saying there was no conflict. Gov. Palin's first 20 months in office were largely focused on energy. She is chair of the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission and oversaw the passage of legislation allowing the construction of a $40 billion natural gas pipeline [source: Palin]. She issued approval for $1,200 checks for every Alaskan from windfall state oil revenues in addition to the $2,000 annual dividend checks Alaskans already receive [source: Seattle Times]. This extra money came out of the $6 billion the state collected in a windfall profit tax Palin's administration imposed on the oil companies operating in the state.

Palin instituted the windfall tax against opposition from the oil companies, helping to cement her position on economic reform. Curbing excessive government spending is one of several issues key to Palin.

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Key Issues and Policy of Sarah Palin

Alaska governor Sarah Palin in her office on Dec. 6, 2007. Less than a year later, Palin would be picked as the Republican vice-presidential nominee.
Alaska governor Sarah Palin in her office on Dec. 6, 2007. Less than a year later, Palin would be picked as the Republican vice-presidential nominee.
Joseph Connolly/Getty Images

Palin fashioned herself as a fiscal conservative, especially in the realm of gover­nment spending. After being elected governor of Alaska in 2006, she removed the job of personal chef in the governor's mansion from the state payroll, listed the governor's private jet for auction on eBay, flew coach, and drove herself to work [source: New York Times]. She was taken to task, however, for accepting more than $17,000 in taxpayer money as per diem expenses for working from home, rather than at her official office in the capital of Juneau -- which is 600 miles (965 km) away [source: New York Times].

Her willingness to eradicate earmark spending was also called into question over the Bridge to Nowhere. One of John McCain's key themes during his campaign (as well as throughout his political career), has been ending excessive government spending through pork-barrel projects. He targeted one project in particular to serve as the icon for government excess, a proposed $398 million bridge to link the small town of Ketchikan, Alaska, to the airport on nearby Gravina Island. McCain decried it as the Bridge to Nowhere, and railed against it extensively in the Senate during his campaign to rid Congress of earmarks.

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The bridge came up again after Palin's nomination, when she said in her acceptance speech and other successive speeches that, as governor, she told Congress "thanks, but no thanks" for funding for the bridge [source: Palin]. Like McCain, Palin considers spending reform a key issue and built her career on the issue. Her initial attitude toward the Gravina Island bridge project was called into question by the media, which reported that Gov. Palin expressed support for federal funds for the project in 2006. She later changed her position and reallocated the federal funds to other projects around the state [source: WSJ].

Palin is a staunch supporter of energy independence for the United States. She publicly supported the removal of offshore oil drilling bans along U.S. coastline and said that Alaskans were "ready, willing and able to contribute" to national energy independence through drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge [source: Fox News].

Her religious views are strong and shape her views on family and morality. Palin was christened as a Catholic but later became a nondenominational "Bible-believing Christian" [source: Time]. She is anti-abortion, against stem cell research and state health benefits for same-sex partners, and believes that sex education should consist mostly of teaching abstinence [source: Boston Globe, National Post]. As governor, she decreed two religious-based state holidays, urging Alaskans to observe the National Day of Prayer on May 1, 2008, and proclaiming Nov. 18 to 25, 2007, as Bible Week in Alaska [source: Alaska Governor's Office: 2008, 2007]. Palin also supports teaching creationism and intelligent design alongside evolution in public schools [source: Biography].

Palin tends to support using American natural resources rather than overlooking them for ecological reasons. She created a subcabinet on climate change for Alaska after taking the governor's office. Also as governor, she threatened to sue the federal government if it didn't take polar bears off the endangered species list, as protected habitats and oil and gas deposits often coincide in Alaska [source: WSB]. She is an anthropogenic climate skeptic -- aware that climate change is taking place, yet not convinced it's caused by humans. She also supported a controversial bounty on wolves that paid aerial hunters $150 for the foreleg of each wolf they turned in to the state. The initiative was an effort to reduce the wolf population in order to maintain the moose and caribou populations in Alaska [source: Salon].

Some point to factors like her support of aerial wolf hunting as proof that Palin is unfit for the vice-presidency. Others, however, see it as one more sign that she's unlike any other candidate the country's ever seen.

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Sarah Palin: Life after the Nomination

Gov. Sarah Palin gives her acceptance speech for her nomination as vice president.
Gov. Sarah Palin gives her acceptance speech for her nomination as vice president.
Mario Tama/Getty Images

On Aug. 29, 2008, the 20th anniversary of her marriage, Sarah Palin gave the ­most important speech of her life. Before a television viewing audience of 37.2 million people (one million shy of the record audience Barack Obama's acceptance speech drew a week earlier), Palin accepted the nomination as the first female Republican vice-presidential candidate [source: New York Times]. Palin told McCain after he introduced her: "I will be honored to serve next to the next president of the United States" [source: Palin].

Palin became an overnight superstar after John McCain announced he'd chosen her as his running mate. Political writers were surprised by the breadth and staying power of the sensation her nomination garnered. A Pew Research survey found that for the week of Sept. 1 to 7, 2008, Gov. Palin topped the news cycle, edging out Democratic nominee Barack Obama and even her running mate [source: Politico].

She lent a surge to McCain's campaign, which had been trailing Obama's. In the weeks following his vice president selection, McCain jumped 12 percent among white women registered voters [source: Washington Post]. This surge took away a sector that had largely supported Obama and helped McCain narrow the overall lead between McCain and Obama in polls.

This popularity remained in the face of personal and political revelations about Palin. Almost as soon as she accepted McCain's invitation to run as vice president, news of scandals emerged in the media. Despite the bad press, Palin has displayed an uncanny ability to weather scandals of both a personal and professional nature.

Palin announced that Bristol was five months pregnant at the time of the nomination. "She has our unconditional love and support," the Palins said in a press release [source: Chicago Tribune]. The statement also mentioned that Bristol would marry the father, 18-year-old Levi Johnston. Despite requests for privacy from the Palins, Johnston was brought into media focus when excerpts from his MySpace page were published [source: New York Post].

Stories about Todd Palin's past emerged as well. The "First Dude" was a member of the Alaskan Independence Party (AIP) from 1995 to 2002 [source: Boston Globe]. The AIP wants Alaskans to have a vote on secession from the United States [source: AIP]. Todd Palin also was charged with drunk driving in 1986, at age 22 [source: CBN].

Palin's professionalism came under a cloud when news of the "Troopergate" story spread. As governor, Palin and her husband stood accused of pressuring the state public safety commissioner to fire state trooper Mike Wooten, Palin's former brother-in-law, who was involved in a divorce with Palin's sister at the time. The Palins filed reports against Wooten, alleging he'd been abusive to his stepson and had violated state laws. The commissioner refused to fire Wooten and was himself later fired by Palin. The governor has said she released the commissioner over budget problems [source: WSJ]. The allegations were enough to launch an investigation by the state legislature, prompting Palin to hire a private attorney. Making matters worse, the man she chose to replace the fired commissioner left the position two weeks later after a 2005 sexual harassment complaint surfaced [source: USA Today].

With reports of scandals flooding the news cycle after her nomination, McCain campaign managers kept Palin away from the media. Some journalists complained that Palin was delivering the same speech at each campaign stop and offering nothing new. However, the crowds of voters she drew admired her. At campaign rallies, "Mr. McCain's crowds have mushroomed from hundreds to happily bellowing thousands" [source: New York Times]. She also drew donors: McCain's campaign attracted $7 million the day after he announced Palin as his choice for vice president [source: AFP].

A Sept. 5 to 7 poll shows 53 percent of Republicans said they were more likely to vote GOP because Palin was on the ticket; Vice President Dick Cheney managed to garner 20 percent of respondents in 2000 [source: USA Today]. And Palin's shown tremendous staying power in the media spotlight. "[I]t is very unusual, if not unprecedented, for a vice presidential pick to dominate a campaign in the sustained manner Palin has," wrote one observer [source: Politico].

This, what came to be referred as the Palin effect, lost some momentum as the campaign wore on. By mid-October, Palin’s favorability in polls decreased. One New York Times/CBS poll found that she elicited a 40 percent unfavorable response among voters, with 32 percent responding favorably. This was almost a complete flip-flop in results from a poll taken in September [source: Scotsman]. Support for the vice presidential candidate among the GOP remained strong, however. In early October, Sarah Palin drew a crowd of around 20,000 for a solo appearance in Carson, Calif. This appearance came on the heels of her strong showing at the single vice presidential debate, where most observers agreed the governor held her own against veteran senator Joe Biden.

She also took on the traditional vice presidential role of attack dog for the campaign, mentioning that Barack Obama was “palling around with terrorists,” in reference to the Democratic candidate’s past relationship with former Weather Underground member William Ayers [source: AP].

Sarah Palin appears to have learned a significant amount about national politics. If support for her remains through November, she may become the first female vice-president in U.S. history.

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