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The Sarah Palin Media Spectacle Comes to Grand Rapids

November 20, 2009

Grand Rapids has yet again been cemented in the mind of the nation as a GOP stronghold, conservative to its core, by the arrival last night of former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin.

Kicking off her tour for her tell-all memoir “Going Rogue”, she was greeted by hundreds of adoring fans at Woodland Mall, many of whom had waited all day for her. 

The line of people, filled with as many men as women, young as old, snaked around the mall entrance to Barnes & Noble and outside into the chilly, drizzly November night. Many in the crowd wore Palin memorabilia, including stickers reading “Palin Power” with a moose and the Liberty Bell or t-shirts claiming “Thanks Sarah–We Still Love You!”. 

To pass the time the three diehard Palin fans who camped out at the mall the night before — Nichole Perrine, Laura Lomik, and Lucy Vismostad — periodically started chants of “Sarah, Sarah!”. Everyone would join in, and the chant reverberated through the festive holiday halls of the mall.

Everyone was eagerly awaiting Palin, but we in the media were disappointed, yet not surprised, to learn that Palin would not be doing any interviews and perhaps wouldn’t even address the crowd gathered outside, who were busily scanning the parking lots for her tour bus.

If Palin wanted to travel inconspicuously, her tour bus definitely was not the way to go. As the bus pulled up to the gathering, plastered onto either side of the vehicle was a massive portrait of Sarah the folksy outdoors woman, amidst the mountains of Alaska and the words “Going Rogue: An American Life”. Palin has never been about doing things quietly. 

She surprised the crowd by coming off the bus holding her youngest son, Trig, and grabbing the microphone on the platform set up for her as country music blared through the speakers. Thanking everyone for showing up, Palin then begin to say how much she was glad to be back in Michigan, comparing it to Alaska: “Alaska and Michigan, so much in common, with the huntin’ and the fishin’ and the hockey moms. And just the hard working patriotic Americans that are here.”

Palin had some not so underhanded digs to make towards the media in her short speech, saying she was glad people could read “[her] words unfiltered from the media”.

This tension between the “liberal media elite” and the “real America” was one of the underlying messages last night. Many of her supporters spoke out against the media’s portrayal of Palin and how they contort her words and image. These very supporters eagerly spoke their message to the “liberal media elite” they despise and which is giving Palin ample coverage for her book tour.

After her short speech, she greeted fans in the crowd, who were intermingled with media clamoring for a word with Palin. This was as close as the media was allowed, as Palin was whisked away into Barnes & Noble to begin signing books. Her security guards kept her well protected from the media, which Palin often looks at with disdain, especially after her disastrous interview with Katie Couric during the election campaign.

Much criticism of Palin’s book has been raised, but that didn’t stop her fans from gushing out Palin praise. 

Teenager Madeline Hamilton waited in line since noon but was unable to get a wristband to get her into the signing. But that didn’t diminish her love of Palin:

She’s my hero, she’s my mentor…I love her, she’s great, she’s American. She symbolizes everything I’d love to be. She’s everything I wish I could be and hope to be when I’m older.”

Jo Lamanski drove all the way from the Michigan-Ohio border to see Palin so her daughters could witness ‘Palin Power’: 

We are firm believers that she’s an awesome role model for women, that she is a strong, smart, beautiful woman who is a great mother and didn’t put her career on hold to be a mom and proved that you can do both. You don’t have to give up your family to be a successful career woman, you don’t have to sacrifice your career to be a great mom. And to me that’s an important lesson for my girls to learn.”

At the end of the night, with the crowds dispersing in revelry and the cameras and lights of the media all packed up, Grand Rapids has yet again experienced life in the political spotlight. But what the spotlight has revealed to the nation, and the world, is for us Grand Rapidians something that doesn’t look right in the light.

Edward McClelland of had this to say about West Michigan:

Sarah Palin seemed to have an affinity with Greater Grand Rapids that she may not find anywhere else on her 31-city tour. West Michigan fits both sides of the Palin persona — the antiabortion creationist and the moose-skinning hockey mom. It’s a northern exclave of the Bible Belt, with one of the highest churchgoing rates in the nation. But unlike the rest of the Bible Belt, it’s a place of deep snowfalls, ice rinks and bars with more Ski-Doos than pickups parked outside on a January night. 

Many other news outlets commented on Grand Rapids and West Michigan being a conservative stronghold. 

The notion that is being spread in much of the media that Grand Rapids is purely a GOP epicenter is dishonest, especially when one considers that a majority of Grand Rapids voted for Barak Obama and Jennifer Granholm in recent elections. If Sarah Palin was so popular in Grand Rapids why did she do so poorly in last years Presidential race in this supposed GOP epicenter?


9 Comments leave one →
  1. November 20, 2009 4:27 am

    Not mentioned is the fact area Calvinists are Palin’s main support base, a shrinking minority in an increasingly more culturally diverse Grand Rapids. This accounts for why the majority of Grand Rapids voted for Barak Obama and Jennifer Granholm in recent elections.

  2. mike permalink
    November 20, 2009 1:28 pm

    I felt like this article was really lacking insight and read as though it could have been lifted right out of The Grand Rapids Press or something. I’m honestly a bit confused about why this is even on GRIID.

    Perhaps if more focus would have been given to the points raised at the end of the article (about media portrayal of West Michigan in light of Palin’s appearance), this could have been interesting. More analysis of why Palin is popular on the right and what she believes could have helped as well.

    As it stands, I really just read this and felt like it simply added to the overall spectacle instead of addressing or critiquing it in any substantive way.

  3. Edward McClelland permalink
    November 20, 2009 5:26 pm

    I’m the author of the Salon article quoted here. This blogger didn’t mention it, but I did differentiate between Grand Rapids proper and West Michigan in general. I wrote that the city of Grand Rapids is a middle-of-the-road place that voted for Obama. But there’s no denying that the McCain/Palin ticket had some of their strongest support in Allegan and Ottawa counties.

  4. Kate Wheeler permalink
    November 20, 2009 7:19 pm

    Edward, I read your Salon article and thought it was very well done. But I feel like Kristi has a fair point, and actually a number of commentators on the Salon site spoke to it as well:

    Your representation of West Michigan is overly simplistic. We have a shifting demographic here that’s very noticeable. The city itself is not nearly as conservative and Calvinistic as it once was, although our media still behaves as if it is. In your article, you said Grand Rapids “narrowly” went for Obama and then went on to say that Palin considered the city part of the “real America,” implying it was an area populated mainly by her base.

    Some outlying areas, such as Holland and Zeeland, are still more conservative, as are the farming communities. But West Michigan is also home to places like Saugatuck and Kalamazoo, which are more diverse politically and socially.

    I’ve lived in both Grand Rapids and Holland, and I’ve never, ever seen a snowmobile parked outside a bar. Someone on the Salon site commented that you’re trying to make West Michigan sound like “Northern Exposure,” and I agree–I think you exaggerated for effect, and that’s part of what Kristi is objecting to.

    Kristi, I thought you did a great job summing up the event and also expressing concern about the skewed way that Grand Rapids gets portrayed in the media as we suffer through visits like those of Palin and Huckabee.

  5. Edward McClelland permalink
    November 20, 2009 8:09 pm

    The snowmobiles outside the bar were in Whitehall, which I realize is probably stretching the definition of West Michigan. Sometimes, I strive too hard for local color. Also, I realize that no region is monolithic, but conservatism is a dominant strain in western Michigan. I lived in New Buffalo for a year, and ALL my reps were Republicans. I was trying as hard as possible, though, to make it clear that Grand Rapids was chosen because it was the biggest city in a mostly conservative region, not because it’s overwhelmingly conservative itself. There’s no way Treehouse Books in Holland could have handled this signing.

  6. Kate Wheeler permalink
    November 20, 2009 9:31 pm

    Edward, you’re absolutely correct in stating that there are large pockets that constitute conservative strongholds here. As far as Holland goes, they have a Barnes and Noble there that, while not quite as large as the one in GR, could have handled this event. But I think that Palin might have chosen Grand Rapids not just because of its size but also because of the association with old-school Republicans like Ford and wealthy, extreme right-wingers, like the DeVos family.

    I’m glad you recognize that this city is not really Palin’s “base.” One proof of that: when George W. Bush spoke at a Calvin College commencement in 2005, 100 professors at that college protested his appearance, along with 800 students–equal to about one-third of the faculty and one-quarter of the entire student population. There were also a number of alumni who wrote and told the college never to expect another dime of support.

    I also wanted to say that your book “The Third Coast” is really a wonderful work. One of my favorite lines: “The Germans failed to conquer Britain, Russia, and Africa, but they did get Milwaukee.” Thanks for taking the time to clarify your position in the Salon piece.

  7. Edward McClelland permalink
    November 21, 2009 5:40 pm


    Thanks for the flattering words about “The Third Coast.” Just hearing that you read it is flattering. You can see the difference between spending a year on a book and writing a 1,500-word article between midnight and 4 a.m. Keep in touch. I always like communicating with people in the places I write about, so I can write about them better. I’m at


  8. kristiarbo permalink
    November 21, 2009 8:20 pm

    Thank you everyone for your praises, criticisms, and lively debate on this issue.

    I would like to address some of the things brought up.

    Mike: You said that I should have addressed why Palin is popular on the right and what she believes. I felt by doing so would have added to the spectacle, since many of the main media outlets elaborated on why she is popular among some on the right and what she believes in. Many of us already know the answers to these questions, from the intense media coverage of Palin during the election campaign. I didn’t want to reiterate points already known. But perhaps I was assuming too much. However, I did address why some of her supporters came out to see her on Wednesday night, by quoting Lamanski and Hamilton.

    Edward: First, let me say that I really enjoyed your article as well, and I really appreciate you clarifying your words on this blog entry. It’s nice to have dialogue! As to the quote I used, I chose yours out of all the media coverage that stated West Michigan is a GOP haven because it was the most vibrantly expressed. You were not alone in your assumption about Grand Rapids/West Michigan.
    I appreciate your striving to get the local flavor of the place you are reporting on. We Grand Rapidians just take it personally when our city and regional area is, as Kate said, oversimplified, especially oversimplified as a conservative base. This raises an interesting journalistic issue of how well you can understand a place and the issues when only getting to see it on a surface level. I guess it’s something we should all watch out for even more so in the future. Nothing is ever black and white or even gray but a smattering of many colors.

    Kate: I agree with your guess that Palin chose GR because of the city’s history with Republicans, but as George W. Bush’s visit to Calvin College in 2005 proved, the city is anything but homogeneous. I think many people were surprised by the reaction that arose from this supposedly conservative Calvinistic base. As a graduate of Calvin College, I can say the college has definitely become more open-minded in the past several years. It will be interesting to see how the city continues to become more diversified and if Republicans will feel as comfortable coming here in a few years’ time.

  9. Edward McClelland permalink
    November 22, 2009 3:26 pm

    I just want to quote my exact words, which I think depict Grand Rapids as a moderate place in the middle of a conservative region.

    “Grand Rapids proper still enjoys the middle of the road. The city narrowly voted for Obama last year.”

    As someone who grew up in Lansing, all I can say is, “Who’d a thunk it?”

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