No, the real questions about Sarah Palin aren't about whether she's currently running for president. What we really want to know is whether she's likely to win the nomination. The biggest factor in that will be, as it is for all candidates, whether important groups within the party are willing to support her, but we won't know the answer to that for some time. We can, however, think a bit more about two related questions: Is she willing to do the nuts bolts stuff that most presidential candidates do? And, if not, can any candidate win without those things?
It's that first question, whether Palin will play by the rules, that made last week's Shushannah Walshe story interesting, and that makes yesterday's reporting by the NYT's Jeff Zeleny from Iowa fascinating. As Zeleny tells it, the Sage of Wasilla most definitely did not play by the rules in her Iowa trip:
It is the season when candidates — and their events — are everywhere, but Ms. Palin spent little of her time with them. She did not appear at a rally, impromptu campaign stop or closed-door one-on-one meetings with party activists. The few Republicans who did get a moment of private time with her had to wait in a photo line at a small reception. When politicians accept speech invitations at party occasions, particularly outings like the annual Ronald Reagan Dinner, they often do a host of behind-the-scenes events. It is a mutually beneficial arrangement. But Ms. Palin declined to do any additional appearances.Since John McCain selected Sarah Palin as his VP nominee, that has been, as far as I can tell from the reporting, her pattern. It's not just that she has made the unprecedented decision to basically freeze out the press, although that's part of it; she also seems to avoid any unscripted, open exchanges with anyone outside of her own orbit. That extents even to the candidates she's been endorsing, who she apparently (per Walshe's story) doesn't interview herself before deciding on whether to extend support. It's certainly possible, of course, that reporters are missing some of the story. But it certainly seems to me that what Zeleny tells us about Palin's Iowa visit is typical: she flies in, gives her speech, and leaves, without any of the normal give-and-take that typically goes with this type of events.
Of course, Sarah Palin sits at this point of the campaign with total name recognition and terrific enthusiasm from a not insignificant number of GOP primary and caucus votes. Those assets may mean that she can wait until longer than usual to start following the normal rules of how one runs for president. Or, perhaps, she'll try to capture the nomination without doing those things. Is it possible? Well, we don't know; no one has ever tried it in the forty years of the modern presidential nomination system. To be sure, no one knows which campaigning efforts really matter. What we do know is that elite endorsements and support matter, and I'm pretty skeptical that an FNC-plus-large rallies-plus-TV ads campaign can do the job. That's especially true because Palin's poll numbers right now are hardly overwhelming even among Republicans -- they like her, but they're not yet sold on her as a presidential candidate (in comparison, that is, with other Republicans, which is the relevant question now, as Ramesh Ponnuru points out in a solid post on Palin's prospects). Were she more popular, then I could imagine groups and their leaders endorsing and supporting her simply because they would be afraid of being left behind, but at least now that doesn't seem, to me, to be the case.
Sarah Palin exited the 2008 campaign having acquired a lot of important assets for a presidential nomination run, but also having raised a lot of questions about whether she was really up to the grinding, day-to-day task of a real national campaign. Since then, she's proven beyond any doubt that she's quite good at attracting publicity. But she really hasn't done much to show that she's able and/or willing to do the sorts of things that presidential candidates have always done -- and I'd say she now has about a year to show she's both willing and able. Either that, or she's going to have to prove that the nomination can be won in a whole different way than it's ever been won before. And while I wouldn't rule it out, I wouldn't be betting on it.