Sarah Palin had a pretty good Super Tuesday. Three of the four candidates she endorsed won, bringing her record in tightly contested races to 8-3 overall this midterm election year. Earlier in the day, TIME asked Palin how she makes her endorsement decisions. "Oftentimes I'm looking at the candidate who shares the circumstances in which I've been: underfunded, up against the machine, no big endorsements, running a grassroots campaign with the help of volunteer friends and family," Palin told TIME. "When I see that, and can feel the momentum they can create with their passion in spite of greater challenges than their more comfortable opponents have, then I empathize, I relate, and I want to help."
Palin has done particularly well picking winners in Senate and gubernatorial races, having endorsed Senate candidate Rand Paul in Kentucky, Texas Governor Rick Perry, Susana Martinez for Governor in New Mexico and on Tuesday Nikki Haley for South Carolina Governor (though Haley still faces a run off). Palin doted particularly on Haley, one of her so-called Mama Grizzlies, not only stumping for her an effort she's made for only 7 of the 27 candidates she's backing but also rising to her defense in robocalls when accusations of infidelity arose. "Well, whaddaya know?" Palin wrote on Facebook. "South Carolina's conservative candidate, Nikki Haley, recently zipped to the front of the line in her state's race for governor; and lo and behold, now accusations of an affair surface."
Except for her former running mate John McCain and a lucky few who get a personal appearance, most of Palin's picks benefit mainly from some money, a Facebook post and a few tweets. But even that tends to pack a wallop. Palin "certainly has an appeal to grassroots conservatives, which has benefited some candidates and helped put them over the finish line," says Ken Spain, communications director for the National Republican Campaign Committee, which helps elect Republicans to Congress. "Her support does tend to drive grassroots donations to individual candidates." What's less clear is if her star power with the base will end up helping or hurting with moderates and independents for candidates now transitioning to general elections.
Palin has had a harder time with non-incumbent House races, where contests tend to be more local in nature; all three of her favorites, including pro-lifer Cecile Bledsoe in Arkansas's Third District on Tuesday, have lost this year. Her pick last year of conservative Doug Hoffman over Dede Scozzofava in a special election in New York's 23rd Congressional District led to Scozzafava's withdrawal from the race three days before election day and her endorsement of the Democratic candidate, Bill Owens, who won the long-held GOP seat. Dems were so delighted, they created a website entitled PalinsPrimaries.com; whether or not Palin has actually endorsed a candidate in the race, the site highlights the Republican-vs-Republican bloodletting that, thanks to the Tea Party movement, has come to define many primaries this season.
"I always ask myself if it seems the candidate understands the importance of protecting our Constitution, first, of course. And if they have a record of, or at least articulate plans for, fighting for freedom, both economically and militarily," Palin says. "I inherently root for the underdog, and I end up going with my gut."
Still, in addition to Perry and McCain, Palin has a long list of incumbents she's endorsed, including Michele Bachmann in Minnesota, Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, Oklahoma's Tom Coburn and Jim DeMint of South Carolina. She's also backed such establishment Republicans as Carly Fiorina for Senate in California and Terry Branstad for governor of Iowa both of whom won this week. Her boost in the last week of his campaign helped Branstad overcome, 50%-41%, businessman Bob Vander Plaats, a favorite of the Tea Parties, Focus on the Family and Mike Huckabee. And that favor could pay dividends if Branstad ousts Democratic governor Chet Culver this fall and Palin runs in 2012. Her gut, it seems, also has a pragmatic side.