Palin and Ferraro: Trailblazers Struggle in Their Second Acts

They are a pair of powerful and universally known figures who made the leap from seeking the second highest office in the land  to success on the small screen.

Only two women in America currently know what it’s like to have appeared on a major party’s national ticket. And while former New York Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro and former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin are political polar opposites, their careers have more than a little bit in common. With many notable Republicans now souring on Palin’s future as a potential candidate for national office, it’s interesting to consider the similarities and differences between Palin’s career and that of Ferraro.

Ferraro and Palin were both plucked from relative obscurity to appear on their party’s ticket. A low-profile governor of one of the least populous states and a little-known Congresswoman, they were suddenly rocketed to national celebrity.  And both were essentially chosen as stunts to help bring life into failing campaigns.

In 2008, the New York Times identified McCain’s choice of Palin as not only an appeal for votes from embittered Hillary Clinton loyalists, but a “knuckling under” to the religious right, who had failed to full embrace him when he secured his party’s nomination in the Spring.  When McCain selected Palin as his running mate, he enjoyed a significant bounce in the polls.  It was a Hail Mary that might have worked, had the economy not suffered a complete meltdown weeks later.

Ferraro, for her part, has repeatedly stated over the years that “in 1984, if my name was Gerard Ferraro instead of Geraldine Ferraro, I would never have been the nominee for vice president.” Mondale had been 16 points behind Reagan in polls before he added the Congresswoman to the ticket, and after the convention the campaign managed to pull nearly even for a short time.

After their losing bids, both women would go on to write books, form political organizations and campaign for members of their own party. Both women still in the 40s, they were considered to be their party’s brightest political rising star of the day.

Palin, whether it’s just her personality or a sign of the meida climate we live in, seems to have totally embraced her celebrity status. Her daughter was on ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars” while Palin herself was quick to team up with the Discovery channel to launch a nature/reality show called “Sarah Palin’s Alaska.”

Ferraro did star in a somewhat famous Diet Pepsi commercial, but she did not pursue and exploit her fame in remotely the same manner that Palin has done. Or perhaps the opportunities just did not exist for her at a time when cable television was still in its infancy and the Internet existed primarily as a way to link-up networks of Department of Defense facilities and universities.

It wasn’t all positive, however as Ferraro would often take a beating from the New York press for over a decade due to her husband’s finances and business dealings. And later, her son would be arrested and spend time in jail on cocaine charges.

Some have suggested that Palin is done with public life after her brush with the Vice-Presidency in 2008.  They speculate that flirting with a Presidential run is merely a way to keep her name in the spotlight and help her to expand her various enterprises. Currently, Palin is making significant money as a contributor to the Fox News Channel, and that’s in addition to her work on Discovery and the speaking circuit.

Interestingly, Ferraro would also go on to join a cable news network as a commentator, only to be lured back into the political fray. In February of 1996, she signed on as a “from the left” co-host of CNN’s Crossfire. Her first appearance was broadcast from New Hampshire, just days before the state’s Presidential primary was held.

Not done with politics, Ferraro would go on to make 2 attempts to win a seat in the U.S. Senate representing New York. Running in 1992 and 1998, she came up short in the Democratic primaries both times.

“After eight years of obscurity, she made a bid for redemption only to watch a strong lead evaporate once again under a barrage of questions about her husband’s business dealings and accusations that he was associated with organized crime figures,” wrote Alison Mitchell in the New York Times in 1992.

Ferraro was defeated by Attorney General Robert Abrams in a close primary race. Abrams won 426,904 votes (37%) to Ferraro’s 415,650 votes (36%). The Reverand Al Sharpton captured 166,665 votes for 14% and Elizabeth Holtzman secured 144,026 votes for 12%. Holtzman’s intensive negative advertising and splitting on the female vote likely cost Ferraro the victory.

In 1998, Ferraro made a half-hearted comeback effort. She left her post at CNN to take another shot at the Senate seat she had failed to capture 6 years earlier.

Despite having an early lead, Democratic Congressman Chuck Schumer outraised her by a 5-1 margin and cruised to an easy victory on election day, winning with 388,701 votes (51%) to Ferraro’s 201,625 votes (26%). New York City’s Public Advocate, Mark Green, was in third place with 145,819 votes or 19%.

“Her attempts, and even her losses, have accomplished far beyond what others have accomplished by winning,” said Anita Perez Ferguson, the president of the National Women’s Political Caucus, following Ferraro’s acknowledgement that this would be her last campaign.

Palin, though popular with a significant segment of the national population, has faced serious challenges in Alaska. Her decision to resign as Governor after less than 3 years in office did not sit well with many in the state. Her constant traveling made her the subject of media attacks, and new ethics laws enacted in the state were turned against her as a weapon by those who feared what she might do with the national platform she’d been given.

Since leaving the office of Governor, her influence has allowed her to flex some national muscle. She has traveled extensively in support of Tea Party organizations and conservative causes, helping local and state Republican Party organizations to raise money and build grassroots networks of volunteers. All of the things you would expect from someone planning to take another shot at the White House.

Palin endorsed 64 candidates during the 2010 election cycle. Of those, 53 won their party’s primary and 33 were actually elected to office.

But for all that success, Palin has paid a price. She and her family have been mercilessly lampooned on programs like Saturday Night Live and the Daily Show.

“Bought makeup from Bloomingdale’s to update her ‘slutty flight attendant’ look,” said David Letterman during one of his trademark Top 10 Lists in the Summer of 2009.

“One awkward moment for Sarah Palin at the Yankee game, during the seventh inning, her daughter was knocked up by Alex Rodriguez,” came another jab by Letterman during his nightly monologue. At the time, Palin was in New York with her 14-year-old daughter, Willow.

When asked in 1987 if she would have accepted the Vice-Presidential nomination knowing how it would have all turned out for her and her family, Ferraro was understandably mixed in her feelings: “More than once I have sat down and said to myself, oh, God, I wish I had never gone through with it…. I think the candidacy opened a door for women in national politics, and I don’t regret that for one minute. I’m proud of that. But I just wish it could have been done in a different way.”


  1. Ferraro has an education, business sense, and was smart enough to know when to leave the spotlight. Palin is good at one thing:promoting the Palin brand. She has shown no desire to win over people who aren’t her ‘real Americans,’ nor does she appear to have an ounce of empathy in her body. Her recent trip to Haiti was for the cameras, nothing more. She did not donate any of her large fortune; she and her kids did not put together ‘shoebox gifts’ that she handed out, and she was more interested in washing her manicured hands than interacting with the people unless a camera shot was good. She is a hoax, a fraud, and will be unclothed when she runs, because I am sure the RNC has a file cabinet of interesting information on her secessionist ties, her governing, and even her supposed loving family. Wait for all h*** to break loose as she blames the media, the left, and everyone else for ‘hating her’ -it is never Sarah’s fault.

  2. Sally you are sad and demented. Sarah Palin has won me over because she keeps delivering the right answers. Just like she did for Alaska when she had a 93% approval rating as governor. Where is that overlly popular Democrat that can match that. Americans will take a good hard look at Palin and understand how they’ve been lied to.

  3. Your Comments
    They are similar in that both are female. Beyond that, not so much. The media has declared Palin to be enemy and have worked against her at every turn. The media, on the other hand, covered for Ferraro. How? Well, her name isn’t “Ferraro,” it is Zaccaro (sp?). Ferraro’s husband, Zaccaro, was reputed to have mob connections (Brooklyn?) and all agreed, therefore, to avoid such discussion by letting her use a different name.
    Would the captive media allow Palin to do such a thing?

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