Saturday, Sept. 20, 2008 | 2 a.m.
They’re on a first-name basis, and first name only. It’s just Sarah.
That would be Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the Republican nominee for vice president.
With the Palin pick, Arizona Sen. John McCain has helped erase some of the enthusiasm gap in Nevada, with Republican hope, energy and volunteer participation on the rise, according to GOP volunteers interviewed this week.
“Sarah brought me in,” said Linda Lee Burnett, who was making phone calls at state Republican headquarters in Las Vegas this week. “She rocked the base,” said Burnett, a naturalized citizen from Canada and longtime conservative activist.
Burnett came in about a week ago and had put in 15 hours, she said.
Analysts say McCain’s first task was to excite his Republican base, and he’s done it. In fact, here’s how much he’s done it: People are demanding yard signs that say “McCain/Palin,” rather than just “McCain,” according to a Republican operative.
Why do they like her so much?
The answers vary. Her conservative bona fides are important to Charity Chase, a young libertarian: “What she stands for and her record,” Chase said at Republican headquarters. McCain has long had problems with conservatives, who see one of their own in Palin.
Other interviews reveal an admiration of Palin’s remarkable unpretentiousness — working mother with a pregnant teenage daughter, high-end blue-collar hobbies such as moose hunting and snowmobiling. They can relate to her life easily.
“When you’re a mother, you have better instincts and can solve problems,” said Kayla Carter, who at 16 is working on her first campaign. She was calling voters from a Henderson office.
But Republicans also love that Palin’s no average working mom — she’s like an average working mom with extraspecial life force that has fueled a rocket rise, taking on the allegedly corrupt Alaska Republican establishment and beating it in 2006.
“She’s like the average person who does everything,” said Ana Wood, a volunteer at the Henderson office.
The Palin fever is reminiscent of the aura of excitement that’s surrounded Democratic nominee Sen. Barack Obama since his famous keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.
National Review, the venerable conservative magazine, has Palin on its cover this week, with a slightly tongue-in-cheek headline: “The One!”
Georgia Parker, who volunteered many hours for President Bush in 2004, came into the Henderson office for the first time this week proclaiming Palin “emanates pureness.”
McCain has closed what had been a yawning gap between the two parties on enthusiasm, with 74 percent of Republicans now satisfied with their candidate, up from 49 percent this summer, according to recent polling by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.
This excitement matters, according to Michael McDonald, a political scientist who studies voter behavior at the Brookings Institution and George Mason University. “Volunteers, small donors, the people who participate actively, they have to be enthusiastic about participating. They won’t participate if they don’t care much about the candidates,” he said.
This seems obvious, but is increasingly important. Campaigns once relied heavily on TV advertising, but are in the process of returning campaigning to its roots in person-to-person politics because they believe it’s more effective.
As Yale political scientist Donald Green has shown, interactions with neighbors and friends are often the most effective way to win votes. The new Palin Nevada volunteers widen McCain’s potential pool of voters because the volunteers will chat up their own social and family networks.
Analysts think these social, family and church networks were crucial to President Bush’s 2004 reelection.
The only downside of the Palin bounce for McCain: She’s become a polarizing figure, McDonald said, without the sort of appeal to independents that McCain had hoped for.
Indeed, according to the most recent New York Times poll, Palin has helped McCain only with the Republican base.
But for the Republican volunteers at offices in Southern Nevada, that hardly matters.