—Melissa Deckman[This piece originally appeared on Presidential Gender Watch 2016 on January 26, 2016.]
Sarah Palin’s high-profile endorsement of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in Iowa last week continues to dominate the news cycle. Many view Palin’s motives for endorsing Trump as sheer opportunism, while some conservatives, even Palin’s own Facebook followers, feel betrayed by her decision to back Trump given his uneven (at best) record on many conservative issues. Taken at face value, however, Palin’s decision to endorse Trump may best be viewed as an utter rejection of the GOP establishment.
As she indicates in her—ahem—colorful endorsement speech, Palin believes that Trump is a political force that exposes the “complicity” of both sides of the political aisle in enabling a “fundamental transformation of America.” She argues that Trump has been able to “tear the veil off” the political system:
The permanent political class has been doing the bidding of their campaign donor class, and that’s why you see that the borders are kept open. For them, for their cheap labor that they want to come in [sic]. That’s why they’ve been bloating budgets. It’s for crony capitalists to be able to suck off of them…We need someone new, who has the power, and is in the position to bust up that establishment to make things great again.
Palin is not alone among conservatives, particularly those who sympathize with the Tea Party, in their view that the Republican Party is weak-kneed and ineffectual, despite lots of evidence that the GOP has taken a far right turn thanks in no small measure to the Tea Party movement. In my forthcoming book Tea Party Women: Mama Grizzlies, Grassroots Activists, and the Changing Face of the American Right, I interview dozens of women active in the Tea Party and they, too, uniformly express downright derision toward the Republican Party. These Tea Party women believe that the current crop of GOP leaders will do little to shrink the size and scope of government. That belief, in fact, helped to propel their activism in the Tea Party.
However, I was surprised to find that some of the animosity toward the Republican Party among Tea Party women is linked, in part, to their gender. Several activists I interviewed recounted attempts to influence their local or state Republican parties in a more conservative direction, only to encounter a hostile, good ‘ole boys network. For example, Katrina Pierson, who co-founded the Garland Tea Party in Dallas, Texas in 2009, hails the Tea Party movement for allowing women to find their voices as a new generation of conservative leaders, telling me, “It used to be that men in the GOP or male leaders could take a woman’s idea as their own—I have had this experience—but with social media women can be attributed, they can define their own brand, and define yourself and have your ideas heard. You don’t have to go through the good old boys’ club any longer and that has been huge for women.” Women such as Pierson describe the Tea Party as a more appealing form of political activism for authentically conservative women than the GOP. Social media platforms, in particular, not only allow Tea Party women a chance to promote their political views, but also serve as launching pads for their own political careers. For instance, although Katrina Pierson failed in her challenge to Representative Pete Sessions in the 2014 GOP congressional primary in her home district in Texas, her high-profile involvement in the Tea Party led to her being hired as the national spokeswoman for the Trump presidential campaign. She maintains that Trump’s nontraditional campaign appeals to her and other Tea Party types: “He’s sort of not politically correct. He sort of calls it like he sees it. I’m kind of that way, too.”
To be sure, the past several election cycles have brought some very conservative women to prominence within the Republican Party; examples include Senator Joni Ernst (IA) and Representative Mia Love (UT), both elected to Congress in 2014 (and both endorsed by Sarah Palin). Yet their success is the exception and not the rule. Ironically, the challenges that many right-wing Tea Party women face making inroads with the Republican Party are similar to those experienced by women representing the ideologically moderate flank of the party. As the Republican Party has become more conservative ideologically in the past few decades, work by political scientist Danielle Thomsen shows that GOP women state legislators, who have historically been more moderate than their male counterparts, have been reluctant to seek their party’s nomination for Congress, given that primary voters are far more conservative than voters in the general election. Likewise, experimental research by David King and Richard Matland finds that Republican voters may punish female candidates within the GOP, believing that such women are less conservative than their male counterparts; thus, the perception of women being less ideologically conservative may hurt women’s chances to emerge both as candidates and as party leaders within the Republican Party.
These perceptions about Republican women, then, may have spillover effects for women in the Tea Party, despite their very conservative orientation: if Republican party leaders, most of whom are men, believe that women within the party are less conservative than men, Tea Party women may be hindered in their ability to wield influence within the GOP itself, making involvement in the Tea Party a more appealing alternative.
Turning back to the Republican presidential race, however, what role will Tea Party women play in choosing the eventual nominee? Will Sarah Palin’s endorsement of Donald Trump mean that the “mama grizzlies” she has previously called to arms will follow suit? Possibly. But it won’t likely be because of Sarah Palin’s endorsement alone. Right-wing icon Phyllis Schlafly, whose conservative bona fides are far less open to question than Sarah Palin’s and who has a strong following among socially conservative women at the grassroots level of politics, has also endorsed Trump, declaring him the “last hope for America.” Time will tell if Tea Party women will back Trump or perhaps will find a more “authentic” Tea Party candidate such as Ted Cruz appealing. He, too, was a popular figure with many of the Tea Party women I interviewed, and his anti-establishment rhetoric, as shrill and pronounced as Donald Trump’s, is also likely to find favor with many Tea Party women.
If the latest polls are any indication, however, Palin and Schlafly’s endorsements appear consistent with the sentiment of Tea Party women in battleground states. According to CBS/YouGov, Trump bests Cruz among Republican women and Tea Party voters in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina who seem to agree with Palin that, “[Trump] is perfectly positioned to … make America great again.” She added, “Are you ready for that, Iowa?” Come next week, we’ll know.
Melissa Deckman is the Louis L. Goldstein Professor of Public Affairs at Washington College, where she also chairs the Political Science Department. An expert on gender, religion, and American politics, she is the author or co-author of four books, including Tea Party Women and School Board Battles: The Christian Right in Local Politics, winner of the 2007 Hubert Morken Award for the best book on Religion & Politics from the American Political Science Association. She chairs the board of the Public Religion Research Institute and her political commentary has appeared in The Washington Post, Huffington Post, and the Brookings Institution’s FixGov blog. Her latest book, Tea Party Women: Mama Grizzlies, Grassroots Activists, and the Changing Face of the American Right, will be published by NYU Press in May 2016.