The Palins and The TV Democracy Dance

Bristol's supporters are accused of stuffing the "Dancing With the Stars" ballot box as "Alaska" star Sarah finally confirms presidential aspirations. Will either win their race or will Reality TV bite back?

Somewhere along the line, seeing the word "Clinton" in a headline went from signaling a story about Bill to heralding one about Hillary as the former first lady moved from senator to presidential contender to secretary of state.

In recent days, we've strangely approached a similar point with another political family: the Palins.

Only the path to power – and publicity – seems more driven by the politics of television democracy and the changing meaning of celebrity than by traditional campaigning. With Bristol and Sarah Palin, we’re witnessing a bizarre tangling of politics, so-called Reality TV and entertainment in a media dance that's being made up as it goes along.

Look! There's Bristol Palin reaching the finals of "Dancing With the Stars," amid controversy over whether her mom's Tea Party pals are flooding the phone lines on her behalf. There's Bristol starring in a goofy abstinence PSA with The Situation of "Jersey Shore" infamy. There's Bristol apologizing for homophobic slurs allegedly posted to Facebook by younger sister Willow.

And, oh yeah, there's her mom, Sarah, finally declaring what we’ve all suspected: she's considering challenging President Obama in 2012.

"I'm looking at the lay of the land now, and… trying to figure that out, if it's a good thing for the country, for the discourse, for my family, if it's a good thing," she told Barbara Walters for a "10 Most Fascinating People" of 2010 show set to air Dec. 9.

Palin, certainly no fan of The New York Times, offered similar comments for a story in paper's Sunday magazine.

The rare interviews with journalists other than her co-workers at Fox News came as her new Reality TV show, "Sarah Palin's Alaska," made a strong, memorable debut Sunday.

But by some measures in a pop culture that inexplicably pays inordinate attention to non-celebrity celebrities – like a politician’s daughter – 20-year-old Bristol has been the star of the family as of late.

Chatter about her advance to the dancing show's finals – getting the most votes amid low scores from the judges – proved a trending topic on Twitter. A search of the word “Palin” in Google News turns up numerous results for mom and daughter, alike.

While "Alaska" drew a healthy five million viewers Sunday – reportedly the best show debut in TLC history – the latest "Dancing With the Stars" attracted an audience of more than 17 million for ABC.

It’s hard to gauge Bristol’s true popularity, especially if her mom's supporters really are stuffing the ballot box or if she's being propped up by the Sanjaya Effect (named for the oddball "American Idol" contest whose quirky persona won him more viewer votes than his mediocre singing).

It's equally as difficult to get a hold on her mother's standing in the country, particularly as she continues to blur the boundaries between politician and celebrity. A Washington Post-ABC News poll found last month that 67 percent of registered voters believe Sarah Palin is unfit to serve as president. Meanwhile, a recent Gallup poll put her tied for a close second among possible GOP hopefuls for the 2012 race.

How "Alaska" will impact her presidential prospects is hard to predict. The show’s debut portrayed the Palins, in the words of the former governor, as "normal, average everyday Americans," who fish, ski and climb mountains together as Mom prepares for appearances on Fox News and vies to move them from the Great White North to the White House.

It's quite possible though, that Bristol ultimately will prove as big a vote getter as her mother. After all, we live in a country where the 2009 "American Idol" finals drew 100 million votes – not all that much less than the 115 million ballots cast in the 2008 presidential election.

If that's sadly laughable, we’ll close with videos we expect will elicit less rueful chuckles. Check out Bristol's awkward encounter with The Situation and Stephen Colbert's "Alaska" spoof below as we brace for more life with the Palins.

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Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.

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