Monday, November 16, 2009

Minority Candidate 1

This Walter Shapiro column, suggesting that Sarah Palin could steal the GOP presidential nomination in 2012 as a fringe candidate, is getting some play, but it's badly mistaken.

The premise is that Palin may enter 2012 not only unelectable in November, but also generally unpopular within the GOP except for a small, but enthusiastic base. If that happens, Shapiro argues, the rules of the GOP process would break in Palin's favor:
Republican Party rules are made-to-order for a well-funded insurgent named Sarah to sweep the primaries before anyone figures out how to stop her. If Palin can maintain, say, 35-percent support in a multi-candidate presidential field, then she is the odds-on favorite for the GOP nomination.
Shapiro cites some of John McCain's minority victories in 2008 as evidence. But his own evidence shows why a 35% Palin would have no chance at all to win the nomination. For example:
In California, where delegates were allocated by congressional districts, McCain won 158 delegates with 42 percent of the popular vote. Mitt Romney received 34 percent of the California vote but was awarded just 12 delegates.
Well, yes. This is not strong evidence that a 35% candidate would win (and McCain did better in several large Super Tuesday states, including NY, NJ, and IL).

The 2008 Republican field was unusually fragmented. It's unlikely, however, that this will be repeated in 2012 or any future contest. The problem for the GOP in 2008 is that each of the leading candidates (McCain, Romney, Huckabee) was unacceptable or at least highly problematic for at least one party faction. That's less likely to be the case in 2012; the repeat candidates have time to work on their weaknesses, and the odds are good that at least one new candidate will be safe for everyone within the party -- Pawlenty certainly seems to qualify.

Therefore, in 2012 the likely result is that the normal incentives work properly, and that means that the field will winnow rapidly. Shapiro can't imagine that:
The best way to stop Sarah would be for GOP insiders to rally quickly around a single anti-Palin candidate. But such cabals rarely work in politics because there are too many egos involved. Would, say, Romney be so panicked about Palin that he would prematurely abandon his presidential ambitions to support a potentially more winnable candidate like maybe Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty? Not bloody likely. For that matter, would populist Huckabee drop out in favor of a big-business Republican like Romney to prevent Palin mania? Yeah, sure.
But that's the wrong way of looking at it. Would Huckabee or Romney drop out to "prevent Palin mania?" No. But if a 35% Palin wins Iowa, and Pawlenty (say) wins New Hampshire...well, in that scenario Huckabee probably drops out after New Hampshire. Perhaps Romney, if he manages to finish 2nd in NH and win somewhere else, staggers on into South Carolina, but there's almost no way that more than three serious candidates (Palin included) emerge from South Carolina, and with three serious candidates Palin isn't going to sweep winner-take-all primaries with 35% of the vote. More realistically, if Pawlenty, Romney, and Palin contest South Carolina and Palin receives 35%, then either Pawlenty or Romney is going to finish third and no longer be a viable candidate, leaving Palin one-on-one with an acceptable choice.

Now, that's all about the possibility that Palin is unacceptable to most of the party, but a strong favorite with a bit over a third. I don't know whether that will turn out to be true; Palin may wind up the first choice, or the second choice, of a lot more than a third of the GOP primary electorate. If that's the case, she could easily win -- not because of winner-take-all rules, but because she would be the leading candidate. It's easy to imagine Palin being wildly popular within the GOP but unacceptable to independents. But if 60% or more of Republicans won't vote for her, Sarah Palin will not be the nominee, whatever the rules might be.

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