Election 2010: The Reality TV Show

Sarah Palin, is cloaking herself in the Reagan cloth, while trying to turn the mid-term fight into a preview of her vs. President Obama. But does the image bear out the reality?

Sarah Palin, while appearing on “Fox News Sunday,” was asked about recent comments by former top Bush Administration adviser Karl Rove dismissing her as a reality show star all-but unworthy of the presidency.

Palin, a paid commentator for Fox News, replied that her upcoming show on The Learning Channel, "Sarah Palin’s Alaska" is a documentary series about the scenic state she served for three years as governor. Then she invoked the two words that make Republicans from the center to the far right genuflect: Ronald Reagan.

“Wasn't Ronald Reagan an actor? Wasn't he in 'Bedtime for Bonzo,' Bozo or something? Ronald Reagan was an actor,” she said (check out a clip of the exchange here).

Her deceivingly light-hearted response proved both a master stroke and a revealing moment: Palin cleverly cloaked herself in the Reagan cloth while embracing her odd hybrid role as a politician/pundit/TV show star and spinning it as a strength rooted in GOP tradition.

Which got us thinking that, on some level, Tuesday's mid-term elections are playing out as a reality show of sorts – and Palin has tried, with some success, to set herself up as the star.

The election is seen in some quarters as Palin and the Tea Party vs. President Obama, in a possible prelude to the 2010 presidential race. But like much of Reality TV, what you see isn't always the full picture.

While the President's popularity ratings are sagging, Palin's not doing so well in the polls herself: a recent Washington Post-ABC News survey found that 67 percent of voters see her as unqualified for the presidency, about the same since the spring.

Her poll fortunes, of course, might change with time. But the number seems particularly poor considering the general discontent with Washington, the publicity garnered by the Tea Party and Palin's own attempts to carefully control her image.

She generally avoids press interviews, save for her home turf of Fox News. She communicates largely through speeches before friendly audiences (as with her appearance at Glenn Beck's "Restoring Honor" rally) and through social media (her “Mama Grizzlies” video has notched close to 500,000 hits on YouTube since June). Palin’s recent entertainment TV appearances have been limited to rooting on her daughter, Bristol, on “Dancing With the Stars.”

Her endorsements have received major press: she's fighting hard for Tea Party-friendly Republican U.S. Senate candidates Joe Miller in Alaska and Sharron Angle in Nevada, though she seems to distancing herself somewhat from Delaware Senate hopeful Christine O'Donnell, who has become a national punchline.

Obama, meanwhile, has spent more time visiting entertainment TV shows than any president, drawing him some criticism. The GOP is quick to compare Obama’s overall performance to that of one-term Democratic President Jimmy Carter. But he also has parallels with Carter’s successor, Reagan.

Like The Great Communicator (and Palin), Obama is very telegenic and does well with certain audiences – something we got a reminder of last week with the rock-star reception he received from the friendly crowd at "The Daily Show."

Perhaps more significantly, Reagan was in a similar position two years into his first term, with the unemployment about one percentage point higher than it is now and his popularity ratings as poor as Obama’s latest numbers. The 1982 mid-term elections were a mixed bag for the GOP, with the Democrats bolstering their hold the House and the Republicans taking a one-seat majority in Senate.

Whether the Democrats and Obama lose control of Congress, and how Palin’s candidates fair on Tuesday’s election, remain to be seen.

Looking ahead – at least on the TV front – Obama reportedly is set for a December cameo on The Discovery Channel’s “Mythbusters.” As for Palin, “Sarah Palin’s Alaska” debuts Nov. 14. One reported guest star is Reality TV mom Kate Gosselin.

The show only may have just begun – stay tuned.

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.

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