As a child of the 1980s (trained in women's history), it's hard not to examine John McCain's decision to pick Alaska Governor Sarah Palin for the Vice Presidential slot in light of Walter Mondale's selection of Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate in 1984.
1) Ferraro not only made history breaking the glass ceiling of presidential tickets, but also offered Mondale--a straight-talking but bland Minnesotan (cut from Hubert Humphrey's cloth, but without the charisma)--a running mate that excited white ethnics and blue-collar workers. Ronald Reagan made great inroads into that historic cornerstone of the New Deal coalition in his 1980 defeat of Jimmy Carter. Mondale's selection was hailed by many as playing to the base he needed to retain if he was to have any chance to win.
Meantime, Palin plays to a corner of the modern GOP base left cold by John McCain--evangelicals and those with fervent anti-abortion politics. Like Ferarro, who attracted thousands of women volunteers to the Mondale/Ferarro campaign, she might awaken some energy in a group that Democrats have been peeling away from the Republicans since 2006.
2) Like Geraldine Ferraro, Sarah Palin is seen by most pundits as a lightweight. Ferraro had only six years of experience in the U.S. House, where she offered a solidly liberal voting record but little more. Palin's years on the Wasilla, Alaska city council, her stints as mayor of the same, and her two years as Governor of Alaska is all she has to offer voters concerned about experience.
3) Sarah Palin will face viciously sexist attacks, like this one (which suggests that because Ferarro eventually hurt Mondale's campaign, and that Palin is a woman, like Ferarro, Palin will hurt McCain's chances). These attacks will even come--especially come--from those who should know better, including many prominent Democrats. The smarter ones will praise the choice as historic, and then attack her on her lack of experience.
4) McCain's campaign will get an initial bounce in the polls--just as Mondale's campaign did. The short-term attention from the press, however, will not last as long as it did in 1984 (though the coming GOP convention helps). Back in that pre-cable news world, news cycles could go on for days, rather than hours.
5) Choosing a little-known woman with limited experience made a conventional presidential candidate like Mondale look unconventional. And as McCain desperately tries to resurrect the maverick reputation he gave up in the mid-2000s to ingratiate himself with Republican leaders, this choice burnishes his independent streak.
6) As in 1984, there were other, more qualified, and better known women in the party. Ferarro was not the choice many would have made--San Fransciso's mayor Dianne Feinstein (now a U.S. Senator from California) and Kentucky governor Martha Layne Collins were also on his short list. As for McCain--former New Jersey governor and EPA head Christine Todd Whitman could have given him experience AND change, though she's estranged from Bush's GOP. Another choice might have been Kay Bailey Hutchinson, who was mentioned early on as a potential running mate for McCain. Elizabeth Dole, who tried to run for the GOP nomination in 2000--and then ended up on George W. Bush's short list--is a Senate colleague who could take on Biden in any debate.
Will an emerging scandal bring Palin down, just as inquiries into finances dragged down Ferraro by October 1984? How will she do next week at the Republican convention? What will happen when voters will think about her as one heartbeat from the presidency?
PS: The more things change...the more they stay the same. Mostly-male run campaigns (and political pundits) seem to think that putting a woman on the ticket will attract women with many different kinds of politics, as though women are unable to see past gender when they make decisions as voters. No one ever makes that assumption about men.