After Sarah Palin was first elevated to from obscure governor of less than 1 percent of the population, her influence over the party became abundantly clear. Other than Obama, nobody pulled larger crowds than her. She became the top small donor fundraiser in the Republican Party. She commanded the biggest speaking fees, sold the most books, and even won herself a top paid spot at Fox News. Her endorsement during the 2010 election cycle was the most coveted in the country. The media proclaimed her ability to "connect" with the most base desires of the GOP as unrivaled. Until Palin's infamous "blood libel" video permanently damaged her as a national candidate, she represented everything the GOP base wants in an American leader: White, not too smart, against modernity, an ability to ignore inconsistency, a devotion to megachurchdom, hostility to metropolitan areas, and hateful of anyone not like themselves. The fact that she was woefully unprepared to take on the responsibilities of being president was irrelevant. The Republican right doesn't want a president. They want a televangelist.
While many of us incorrectly predicted a Palin run for the presidency, her imprint on the primary has been obvious. At every turn, Republican primary voters have spoken loud and clear: they want someone who can beat Barack Obama, but they want that person to be as unqualified to be president as possible. While the establishment has decided that Mitt Romney offers their best shot at accomplishing that goal, even they have taken note of just how far right their base has gone. In any other era, the current version of Mitt Romney would have been considered a far right ideologue far outside the American mainstream. The current version of Romney is considered a moderate not simply because of his previous positions, but because the party base has moved far beyond Reagan conservatism and turned into a radical hate group writ large. If it wasn't for Palin's imprint on the party base, this election would look far more favorable for any Republican challenger.
Each of the now defunct presidential candidates has tried to take her place this year. Each of them failed. Michele Bachmann tried to fill her space with her own brand of crazy, but she literally didn't hunt. Perhaps she needed to air advertisements of herself firing a fully automatic rifle. Then Rick Perry moved in to take up the Palin banner, but he didn't hate brown people sufficiently. Then Herman Cain, who prominently endorsed Joe the Plumber, flew the Palin banner high. But he too had a problem: being a Black man sexually interested in White women, which is how we got Obama in the first place. (Sex scandals don't usually bother Republicans. Ask David Vitter. It is only a crime when Democrats do it.) Finally there was Newt, who seemed perfect at first look. Here was a guy who was a noted liar, an accomplished grifter, and a moral disgrace. While Newt could have certainly represent the values of the Palin Party, he has one tiny flaw: Newt is the most disliked human being in America. Even Palin's endorsement can't overcome that. So what's left is Santorum. Literally. A political nincompoop who can't even get basic things done like getting on the ballot.
Rush Limbaugh, the intellectual leader of the party since William F. Buckley's death, has openly proclaimed Palin the leader of the Republican Party. She knows nothing, hates everyone, and is in politics purely for financial gain just like himself. The Palin Party does not want Mitt Romney. For while Palin and Romney are both ambitious to a fault, Romney's ambition is of a different variety. Romney couldn't care less about minorities, gays, women, city and suburb dwellers, immigrants, or any of the other "others" that the Palin Party despises. Mitt Romney couldn't care less about religion, including his own. That's why he doesn't like talking about it honestly in public. Mitt Romney cares about one thing and one thing only: that the top one percent stay on top and become even more top. That's a problem for the Palin Party because they believe they should be on top by virtue of being better than everyone else ... by being "real Americans" rather than rich Americans. No matter what Mitt Romney does, the most he can hope for is that the Palin Party will tolerate him because they hate the alternative more. After all, as bad as Mitt Romney is, he's still a white man. In the Palin Party, that counts for a lot. But his Palin problem will still be there.
In the end, Palin's legacy will fade away as quickly as it came about. Her party is an aging, shrinking, dying demographic of rural White men. Many of the Republican party's luminaries understand this. Likely sooner than later, the GOP establishment will come to grips with the idea that if they are to survive as a political institution they will have to jettison the nutcase fringe. The reckoning will come, as the American political system tends to correct anomalies over time. But first, they'll have to blow an election that should have been easy as apple pie. For that, Mitt Romney can thank Sarah Palin.