Sarah Palin has not made a decision as to whether she’ll run for president next year — a run is still definitely on the table among her closest advisers. But, problematic poll numbers aside, Palin’s biggest hurdle may be her lack of any professional communications staff and her history of fractious staff relations.
While her attacks on the “lame-stream media” are frequent applause lines, her disregard for press protocol has often caused problems with her staff, and has even hindered her relations with the mainstream of her party. Only two months after forming the PAC last year, Becki Donatelli, who ran Palin’s fund-raising, suddenly quit. Donatalli, a longtime D.C hand and wife of former deputy RNC chairman Frank Donatelli, became demoralized after getting frequent calls from political reporters she knew, according to one person close to her. The press, like Palin’s D.C-based staff, were equally exasperated with Palinworld’s complete disregard for communicating. When Donatelli tried, and failed, to get basic answers to reporters’ questions answered by Stapleton, she resigned. “It’s an unpleasant chapter in my life,” Donatelli told me when I asked about working for Palin. “I’ve been hurt in this whole process, I’m trying hard not to get into it.”
As Going Rogue was about to roll out, relations between Palin and HarperCollins frayed when Rebecca Mansour, the co-founder of Conservatives4Palin.com who later became an adviser, attacked HarperCollins’s strategic publicity campaign and decision to keep Palin under wraps until her first interview with Oprah. On Sunday, November 15, Palin advisers and HarperCollins held a conference call to discuss the book’s launch. On the call were Palin’s agent, Bob Barnett; advisers Doug McMarlin, Jason Recher, and Mansour; and HarperCollins PR chief Tina Andreadis. That morning, the Sunday political shows had been chewing over some of the book’s juiciest revelations that surfaced after the Associated Press published excerpts on Thursday. During the call, Mansour, known by her nickname “RAM” by Palin’s advisers, exploded at Andreadis because the AP had published excerpts and HarperCollins hadn’t given advance copies of the book — which had been tightly held — to conservative blogs like Redstate.com and Conservatives4Palin.com. Mansour said Palin should be catering to the conservative blogs first (she didn’t register that the AP had gotten a book through their own reporting methods and HarperCollins wasn’t providing the book to anyone, liberal or conservative, until the official launch on Oprah). “This is not how Governor Palin would want her fucking PR campaign to be done!” Mansour snapped, according to one person with knowledge of the call. Andreadis was furious, one source said. Palin’s lead advance aide, Jason Recher, tried to diffuse tensions.
Palin’s view appears to be that loyalty, above experience, matters most. Her inner circle is filled with advisers like Mansour who have never held positions at that level for a national figure of Palin’s stature. Palin’s scarring experiences on the vice-presidential campaign define the culture of her new political operation, and it’s understandable she’d be wary of expanding her circle. By the end of the presidential campaign, Palin had basically stopped communicating with John McCain’s senior advisers. She turned to Recher, an aide who ran logistics on her plane and began offering her political advice. Recher, who entertained colleagues with his well-honed impressions of George W. Bush and others, infuriated McCain headquarters when they learned he was secretly advising Palin and encouraging her erratic wishes, like her requests to divert her campaign bus to Michigan even after the decision had been made to pull out of the state for budget reasons.
During a swing through Maine and New Hampshire in October 2008, McCain staffers were apoplectic when Palin was said to have told Recher that she wanted to personally Google every local politician who would be allowed on her bus and shake her hand. At a campaign stop in Salem, former Massachusetts governor and McCain surrogate Paul Celluci was left awkwardly standing outside her bus because Recher hadn’t cleared him to board. The next morning, Jim Barnett, McCain’s New Hampshire campaign manager, fired off a testy e-mail to headquarters. “We worked for many days on the programs taking into consideration all the political implications and working with advance to get everything flowing smoothly. Then, at literally the last minute, for 3 of the 4 events, someone with some apparent authority calls our advance on the ground and fucks everything up. This has so far resulted in pissing off two United States Senators and the creation of a total cluster which has reflected very poorly on the campaign.”
Post-campaign, McCain advisers saw her as dangerous. At a conference in Washington hosted by The Atlantic, Steve Schmidt told the audience that Palin’s selection as the Republican nominee in 2012 would be “catastrophic” for the party. Schmidt’s public comments reflected deep concern inside McCain’s circle about how to respond to the looming publication of Going Rogue, which was set to hit bookstores the following month. At the time, McCain staffers were placing a series of calls and discussing what claims Palin might make in her book, and brainstorming responses. The anxiety reached all the way to McCain himself, who didn’t want his former staff to be dragged into a public feud with his vice-presidential running mate. Shortly after Schmidt’s comments, Mark McKinnon held a conference call with McCain and senior members of his campaign staff to discuss how they would respond to claims Palin might make in Going Rogue. “McCain strongly suggested that no one engage at all,” one participant on the call told me. That doing so would only further inflame controversies he always thought were ugly, unnecessary, and overblown.”
Publicly, at least as long as he’s facing a tough primary fight from conservative challenge J.D Hayworth, McCain continues to distance himself from any remaining tensions between Palin and his former staff. McCain adviser Charlie Black told me that McCain and Palin speak regularly by phone, which another source close to McCain put as “every couple of weeks.” “She never had any separation from McCain. They’re friends,” Black said.
This summer, Mark Burnett and Palin are scheduled to film her TLC show in July and August. Then she’ll be active campaigning for conservatives in midterm elections. After that, says the conventional wisdom, she’ll need a more extensive and professionalized campaign staff to mount a serious run. But whatever else she is, she’s not a conventional politician.
Related: How Sarah Palin Has Become a Singular National Industry