Thursday, October 29, 2009

Palin's Future

I enjoyed Tom Schaller's prediction last week that Sarah Palin wouldn't run for president in 2012. I think his logic about her chances of winning is sound, as is his observation that a candidate intending to seek the presidency in 2012 wouldn't resign her governorship now; in fact, such a candidate should seek re-election. One could add that it makes no sense at all for Palin to escalate her public feud with her ex-almost-son-in-law.
That, however, is just the problem with predicting Palin's actions: there's no sign at all that she's operating by the normal rules of politics. The downside of this for her is that she is rapidly squandering any chance she ever had of recovering her standing with the bulk of the American people. However, it makes her even harder to predict than it makes most pols -- and, in my view, these sorts of predictions are fairly useless anyway other than for the fun factor. We can properly analyze the incentives for a candidate to run, but predicting which way a candidate will react to those incentives requires getting into her head. Of the major four Democratic candidates leading up to 2008, it turned out that Clinton and Edwards ran, while Kerry and Gore passed. Was that predictable in advance? I don't think so, at least not without knowing a whole lot more about them as individuals.

One thing we can do is observe that whatever Palin may do later on, right now she does appear to be running for president: she's basically doing the things that a candidate in her situation would do (Josh Putnam has a nice turn of phrase for this: he talks about candidates who are running for 2012, regardless of whether they will be running in 2012). The case that Palin is running now isn't as clear as the case for, say, Romney or Pawlenty, but then again the things she needs to do are different. I'm comfortable saying that she's running, for now. (The giveaway? The footnotes on her facebook posts. That's an effort to show that she has real substance, something only needed if she wants to be taken seriously beyond her current fans).

Now, with Palin, there's also been considerable speculation that her "real" goal is to extract as much money as she can from her current situation (something that's only going to accelerate with this story, even if it turns out to be not true).

So: Palin is doing the things that she would do, sort of and in her particular way, if she was currently running for president. There's running for president, though, and running for president. The "running for president" that Obama, McCain, Romney, and Edwards did in 2008 isn't quite the same thing as the "running for president" that Pat Robertson, Jesse Jackson (especially in 1984, but probably in 1988 as well), Alan Keyes, and Dennis Kucinich did. I'm starting to think that a Palin 2012 campaign might well be more along those lines than it would a full-blown, in-it-to-win-it effort.

Two things about that. First, I'm not really sure that Palin herself will realize, and I'm sure she would never acknowledge, that that's what she's doing.

Second...the campaigns like that over the last few cycles have almost all been busts, in terms of any effect on who gets nominated. Keyes, Kucinich, Sharpton, Gary Bauer -- none of those candidates made a dent in the results of the Iowa Caucuses or the New Hampshire Primary; none of them, as far as I can recall, won a single contest. The most successful was Ron Paul in 2008, but he failed to reach 10% in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Palin could be different; Palin could be a lot more like Jesse Jackson in 1984.

Here's what I'm envisioning. Sarah Palin announces for the presidency. She enters all the primaries and caucuses. She sets up a campaign organization, but it's constantly beset by trouble; aides come and go, sniping at her in the press on their way out. Palin herself doesn't work to hard. She gives some speeches, does a little door-to-door stuff, shows up at debates, and finds a few friendly TV and radio hosts to spend a good deal of time with, and gives a handful of regular media interviews. And that's about it.

She's able to raise money, so she gets her adds on the air. She stumbles her way through debates (with a large field, it's not as if the early debates require much) and her handful of "real" media interviews. She retains her intense popularity with one group of Republicans, and gains no new fans. And she tallies between 20% and 33% of the vote in state after state.

Normal candidates, candidates who are attempting to become president, quit when they can't win. Jackson/Keyes/Paul type candidates don't. They don't need that much money, so they can't be stopped by party bigwigs leaning on donors to cut them off. They often aren't in it for anything the party can give them, so the party has very little in leverage over them.

At the level of an Alan Keyes or a Denis Kucinich, these candidates are just a minor nuisance. At 25% or 30% of the vote, they can cause all kinds of real problems.

I'm not exactly predicting that Sarah Palin will be Jackson '84, but I could very easily see her headed that way.


  1. I hadn't considered the Jackson angle before. That's an interesting analogy.

    Did Jackson's polling trajectory on the issue of his competence ever look like this, though? But does that hurt her with the group of people that are willing to help her to a quarter or a third of the vote in every primary? No, not really.

    But if Steve Schmidt's thinking is widespread among the elite of the party (that her nomination would be catastrophic), then the GOP better hope that she doesn't catch on and get enough of the vote (a third?) in a majority of the 20 winner-take-all primary states. Look at a state like Missouri in 2008. She could potentially rack up a lot of delegates in the primaries that way.

  2. On the first answered your own question, right? It doesn't matter at all (for this scenario) what everyone else in the country thinks about her.

    On the second point...that's pretty much what I was thinking. It's one thing to have Jesse Jackson guaranteed a certain number of delegates because of a PR system; it's another thing entirely to have a candidate getting 25-35% of the vote in a winner-take-all system if there are three or more other candidates taking votes. OTOH, once it's down to two other candidates, it's not all that big a deal, and the GOP is usually pretty good at winnonwing efficiently (2008 notwithstanding).

  3. One of the things that I learned during my brief and undistinguished career in the political world is how difficult it is to distinguish "not calculating to do X" from "calculating to do X, but incompetently." What looks like the former, alas, often turns out to be the latter.

    There's little question in my mind that Palin is running--or at least running to be running. Given her behavior, however, her chances of executing an effective national campaign seem to be somewhere between slim and none. I also dissent from the conventional wisdom about the extent of her popularity within the GOP electorate (she doesn't perform particularly impressively against other potential candidates in polls taken this year, when one would think her strength would be at its peak). Instead, I remain attached to a pet theory that the Palinmania of fall 2008 was primarily a reflection of the Republican base's lack of enthusiasm for the man at the top of their ticket.


  4. Jonathan,
    Of course. Why would I let anyone else answer my questions? Where's fun in that?

    Yes, the Republicans have been much more efficient at winnowing their fields, but if a true frontrunner doesn't emerge for 2012 (say a Romney/Huckabee/Palin group heads into Iowa on relatively equal footing), we could see a repeat of 2008 on the Republican side. In that scenario, I still see Romney as the candidate best able to take advantage of the primary calendar as it stands now (That is certainly subject to change.). We'll have to see if any one person tickles the fancy of the GOP's elite and mass levels though.

    I agree with your pet theory, but we should probably add the caveat that there is a distinct difference between unknown Sarah Palin in the fall of 2008 and known Sarah Palin in the fall of 2009.

    There should also be a line drawn between how she does nationally and how she does among Republicans only. She has certainly held her own in the Republican-only samples who have been asked the 2012 primary question so far this year. For the most part, Palin has been amongst the top tier of candidates. Granted, that may be more a function of name recognition (Romney and Huckabee are the other top tier candidates.) at this point. But her favorables are better or comparable to Romney and Huckabee with Republicans. So she isn't necessarily in a hole, but whether she can sweep to some victories in some of the big, winner-take-all delegates states, remains to be seen. The calendar will have a lot to say about that.


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