Salena Zito

She holds the distinction of being the only man or woman who warrants a personal influence-tracking map on the Washington Post’s politics page.

Republican and former Alaska governor Sarah Palin has arrived, much to the consternation of many on the left, on the right and in the media. Why? Because no one can pin her down, even those who are close to her.

As one confidante recently whispered, “Where is she going with this?”

The debate over her influence on a number of primary elections has the political elite and the media chattering – yet Isaac Wood, a campaign analyst at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, dismisses it as just that, chatter.

“This is another in a long line of examples of people overestimating the effect of endorsements,” Wood explains. “In most of the races so far, it doesn’t mean a thing. Sometimes she picked winners, sometimes losers, but nowhere is it clear that her endorsement actually caused the result, one way or another.”

Palin is a heroine to many at this moment but with that comes the reality of how her stature remains that of an outsider.

She means a lot of things to a lot of different people.

Many liberal feminists view her as a modern version of anti-feminist icon Phyllis Schlafly, a threat to the progress women have made in politics, business, and society over nearly 50 years.

Yet many Tea Partiers, libertarians and conservative Republicans view her as an inspiring leader for conservative women and a national symbol of anti-elitism.

In 1984, the choice of Rep. Geraldine Ferraro, D-N.Y., as the vice-presidential running mate to Democrat Walter Mondale excited progressive women and made them believe they had a place at the political table.

Although many analysts believe the political "gender gap" came about after that because women started voting more for Democrats, it really was a case of women staying with the party that they (along with much of the rest of the country) joined during Franklin Roosevelt's administration – partly owing to the inspiration of Eleanor Roosevelt.

Ferraro's candidacy just gave women a reason to stay.

Eight years later, 1992 became known as the “Year of the Woman,” says Lara Brown, a political science professor at Villanova University, in which “more women ran for office and the percentage of women serving in the U.S. Congress jumped from 6% in 1991 to 10 percent.”

Viewed through this prism, Palin now gives some women a reason to join the Republican Party or run for elected office.

Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.