Monday, September 20, 2010

Can Palin Win?

Last week, I had a little fun with the framing of what I said was otherwise some good reporting about Sarah Palin's presidential campaign.  Basically, I think it's silly to ask whether or not Palin is running; I think it's obvious that she and the other leading Republicans are running now (and have been since November 2008), and there's no use pretending otherwise.  Indeed, I think that's true for someone such as Palin -- that is, party leaders by default based on their formal position -- whether or not they even think of themselves as candidates.  So I think Al Gore and John Kerry were essentially running for president in 2005 and 2006, even if they didn't think they were; they had basically cleared the first set of hurdles for all candidates, and were well-positioned to take the next steps on the road to the nomination had they chosen to do so.  That's certainly the case with political figures who are barnstorming the nation, endorsing candidates, making political speeches, and weighing in on current policy controversies. 

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.


  1. I'd rephrase one part of what you said, and I think it's important. Speaking of whether its possible to get the nomination without following the normal rules, you said that "no one has ever tried it." I don't think that's the case, particularly if we adopt your more expansive definition of who is running (which includes Gore and Kerry 05/06, even though I'm not sure they ever wanted to themselves).

    Rather, what we do know is that everyone who has won (or even done well in the process) has done it through some combination of the given tactics and resources. I would entertain the argument that Fred Thompson tried a campaign without, you know, actually campaigning at all. And, if we call Gore a candidate for 08, do we also allow that he might have been trying a convention bailout (can't decide between HRC and Obama!) strategy? Or was HRC actually doing what Dick Morris accused her of in 2004, using Wesley Clark as a stalking horse? Going back to the pre-McGovern-Frasier system, LBJ was running for president in 1960, but he didn't really expend any real effort in trying to convince state and local party people to support him, somehow convinced in his own mind that his strong support amongst DC types was going to carry the day (despite it not working out AT ALL for him in 1956, either). But, the example still serves: people have tried to run for president "incorrectly" before.

  2. I think Matt is correct here; it's not that no one has tried, but that everyone who has succeeded has campaigned within a broad range of "normal."

    I'd probably want to differentiate between foolish strategies (such as skipping Iowa, or the very late entry some candidates tried up in 1972 and 1976), and what Palin might be doing. I don't think anyone has ever done anything quite like what she's reported to be doing.

  3. I remember in the last Palin post, the questions were raised as to whether party leaders would block her nomination, and if so, whether it'd be a unified front. This post kind of harkens back to that topic, because I would argue, if things stay as they are (I.E. suppose the campaign was happening right now), party leaders would definitely block her, and be successful, even though I don't think it would be a unified front.

    I don't think GOP party leaders trust her conservative credentials... She knows the right things to say about social issues, but she hasn't really demonstrated any real devotion to fiscal conservatism or national security, and I think they're worried she might not even understand those issues very well. We all know how much Republicans value orthodoxy, and party leaders won't support her if they feel when a difficult situation arises, she would eschew ideology to "go with her gut," and I get the sense that's exactly what they think she'll do.

    She could do a lot to assuage those fears, not to mention raise those mediocre poll numbers among Republicans, by "playing by the rules" as you mentioned, meeting with key figures behind the scenes, etc. But then again, I get the sense that the more people try to influence her, the more inclined she is to "go rogue" for the sake of it... A lot could change between now and 2012, but that's how I see thing going.

  4. Perhaps the question is not so much whether Palin can win, as whether a team of political operators who want the White House may pick her as their figurehead.

  5. It's been noted here that primaries, unlike general elections, are decided by a smorgasbord of factors that are difficult to tease apart in any particular instance. In the abstract, the goal in every primary must be to get to the front of the parade, which this blog, and others, have noted is generally a strength of Palin's.

    Sake of argument, suppose the three big factors in any primary are some combination of the following: endorsement of party insiders, looking the part, and being omnipresent. Palin would appear to have the last two down cold. What about that first one, the insiders' endorsement? Does it matter?

    I believe that Matt Jarvis noted on a recent thread that, 100 years ago, a candidate couldn't even get on the ballot without the imprimatur of a local party boss. At the very least, the party leaders must be less influential than they were 100 years ago. Strikes me that they may hardly matter at all now, and for evidence there's the curious case of McCain's 2008 Republican primary win.

    I'm thinking partly of McCain's irritating habit of biting the party hand that fed him over his career. More, though, I am focused on McCain's odd "military hero" narrative that, while overwhelmingly accepted by we the ignorant masses, surely must have made party insiders cringe.

    Seen from the perspective of a "kingmaking" party insider, here might be three of the most salient details of McCain's military career:

    1) The USS Forrestal fire. Search for the Rolling Stone write-up if you're unfamiliar - 134 men died fighting a blaze that started on McCain's A-4 jet, but McCain (obviously) wasn't among them, having fled to the safety of captain's quarters.

    2) Trading military intelligence for medical care (surgery). McCain confessed as much in his first stateside interview after his POW stint; I understand that such an act of treason is punishable by death if the prosecution so chooses.

    3) The son and grandson of 4-star admirals, McCain apparently left the Navy because he had no shot at any admiralty at all. McCain III earning even one star, given his family connections, should have been the most no-brainer promotion in the history of organizational life. That it was an impossibility is quite difficult to fathom.

    Aside from the Rolling Stone article, you didn't hear about any of that in the campaign; it made substantially no difference to the general narrative. The discussion here, though, is whether there exist party insiders, not meme-absorbing slobs like you and me, who look beyond the hype for what's best for the party.

    That the hawkish, pro-military intervention modern Republicans landed on McCain should tell us, as much as anything, that such insiders are either non-existent, or at best, basically irrelevant.

    Palin 2012!

  6. "Palin would appear to have the last two down cold."

    I'm not so sure about the first of the last two. Is "looking the part" mean looking Presidential, or some such intangible? 'Cause I'm not sure she has that to anyone but her supporters.

    And I'd add in another factor: organization. You probably need the best GOTV effort to win Iowa (relative to the other candidates), and one built to compete to win SC. I don't know what the other early Republican states are, but NV and Michigan would need a GOTV operation, too.

    "Strikes me that they may hardly matter at all now, and for evidence there's the curious case of McCain's 2008 Republican primary win."

    Why? Republican "insiders" were at best split in that race, maybe even leaning toward McCain. Romney was a flip-flopper, Huckabee was squishy on taxes, but McCain had been buttering them up for years. Sure, he'd "bit the hand that feeds" from 2000-2003, but from 2004 on, he toed the party line pretty hard. Indeed, I'd look at the way the insiders closed ranks around McCain- including the pressure on Romney to drop out- and iced out Huckabee as a validation of the insiders' power. And while McCain's war history is quite a bit more complicated than he spun it (what isn't more complicated than a politician's spin?) I doubt the insiders much cared, if only because none of the voters besides the fiercest left-wing activists cared, either.

  7. Colby,

    I appreciate your pushing back against my argument above, since it provides an opportunity for clarification: you're right, of course, that McCain's iffy military career did not, empirically, damage his campaign - not in the slightest.

    But the hypothesis we are testing is whether kingmakers exist to veto unpalatable candidates before the fact. In the first Presidential election after the difficulties Kerry had with T. Boone Pickens, its strange to think that knowledgeable Republican insiders, possessing such a veto, would not use it on a guy like McCain, who pretty much had a "Swift Boat Me!" sign taped to his butt.

    As anyone who has googled the topic surely knows, there's plenty of grumbling regarding McCain's time at the Hanoi Hilton, surely enough to come up with a mobilized Swift Boat movement against McCain. Worse for McCain, the content of the grumbling sort of stands to reason in light of what McCain himself confessed in USN&WR.

    When the son of the guy who is at the head of the Pacific Command admits to trading (juicy, surely) secrets for surgery in the first few days of his captivity, you probably have a pretty good idea about how the last five years of that POW stint went. What would you do if you were the Viet Cong and had unearthed such a treasure as the singing bird that was John S. McCain III? One can imagine stays at the 'actual' Hanoi Hilton Presidential Suite, among others, which is more or less what the anti-McCain grumbling (believably, IMHO) alleges.

    IOW, these vetoing Republican insiders must have known that, in the wake of Kerry's swift boat troubles, nominating McCain was akin to opening a can of whoopass on themselves - which seems to suggest those insiders are quite ineffectual. Or nonexistent.

  8. "its strange to think that knowledgeable Republican insiders, possessing such a veto, would not use it on a guy like McCain"

    I don't think it is at all. Remember, they're not going to "swift boat" a guy just because they have the opportunity, there's going to be a motive to it, too- either they don't want him to win, or they want someone else to win more (either because they genuinely dislike McCain/like someone more, or think McCain can't win). But if those feelings were present, they clearly weren't very strong.

    After all, McCain had spent the last 2-3 years courting Republican insiders- appearing at Bob Jones University, mending fences with Grover Norquist, campaigning for Bush, etc. And long before that, he'd been the neocons' preferred candidate. He had recanted his squishiness on taxes, and had NEVER been a problem on abortion. That's the Republican "three legged stool" right there.

    Meanwhile, Romney HAD been a problem on abortion. Huckabee had been a problem on taxes. Guiliani had been a problem on all three at one point or another. Thompson was just fine on all three, but remember that he'd basically been recruited into the race by Republican opinion leaders. He came in late, came in without a plan, and barely really campaigned.

    So, you had McCain who was perfectly serviceable on the issues that matter most to Republicans, and everyone else, who had definite problems on those issues. It's easy to see why Republican insiders would consider McCain the best of an admittedly bad lot, or at least fine enough not to exercise a veto over.

    Especially because McCain had, up until 2008, preserved some shred of his original brand. He was the major candidate least associated with Bush or the current Republican Party, he was still that party's most popular politician. Now sure, Obama's communications strategy did a number on that brand, but in 2007, at the stage when such "veto power" would be effective, it hadn't yet. McCain evinced just as much chance to win as any of the other announced candidates, except that...

    ...he had no money, and his staff was in turmoil. He'd basically abandoned his original plan and gone for broke on a NH bus-tour selling the Iraq Surge just as much as he sold himself. By all accounts, political reporters were only showing up to write the obituary. At that point, there was no need to veto McCain's campaign; he was doing it himself.

  9. So, McCain's views were perfectly acceptable to most Republicans (even his "do everything" approach to energy must've calmed the nerves of the oil men), and arguably better than his opponents. At the beginning, his chances to win were just as good as his opponents, too, and when those chances plumetted, well, his chances at the nomination did, too, so no veto was necessary. The Republican "insiders" (to the extent that they exist) had no pressing need to exercise a veto on his candidacy.

    Moreover, I don't think those insiders could have or should have anticipated fierce attacks on McCain's record. Bush hadn't attacked it, and he'd had both a vicious campaign against McCain and significant help from "Swift Boaters" before. The Democrats were poised to nominate a candidate without ANY kind of service record, and I can't imagine anyone thought that a non-veteran attacking a veteran's war record would go well. And of course, McCain had spent so long telling the story as he wanted it told- and, to be honest, done such a good job of it- that any deep examination of it fell on deaf ears. In the years leading up to 2008, Salon and Harper's had published stories on his war record, and they were met with shrugs (As Rolling Stone's very harsh piece published in the heat of the campaign was). And of course, hind sight is 20/20; Democrats DIDN'T attack his war record, Forrestal and the POW camp didn't come up except in the leftyest of lefty corners, and the real things dragging McCain down were a percieved weakness on the economy, and unpopular President, and a disastrous VP choice. I don't know if I ever even heard Markos Molitsas disparage McCain's service record. So no, I don't think Republican insiders, if they exist, would have deep-sixed McCain's candidacy over his war record because I think they assumed no one would go there- and indeed, no one DID go there. Talk about turning a strength into a weakness!

  10. Now, I think very little of this applies to Palin. I think Republican "insiders" are weaker now than they were in 2008 (And certainly than in 2000), and Palin's base of strength is significantly enough different from them that she could survive any preliminary "veto" attempt. McCain couldn't say the same thing. One similarity: she's probably just fine on their issues (unimpeachable on abortion, malleable on taxes and defense, if there's any problem), and she's going to be facing a field that is just as weak and bad on Republican issues as McCain's was, and that works in her favor. So the only reason to veto would be "Can she win" and I don't know if that's a salient enough point to pull it off given her strength and the Establishment's weaknesses, at least in the early stages.

    But I DO think they can deny her organizational talent, and that can be big, especially in Iowa or Nevada (SC, too, but with Nicki Haley I suspect she'll be able to organize that state without them). They can deny her validity through press organs like the National Review or Fox (witness the hit they placed on Christine O'Donnell last week). While they'll never dry up her fundraising, they can fund someone else to match her. And, perhaps most easily, they can just sit back and let the attack dogs go at her, and god knows Mitt Romeny and such will try to tear her apart. Party insiders can stop that, or at least punish the perpetrators (witness all the tsk-tsking Clinton got in the middle stages of the 2008 primary- and by all accounts, the Democrats are far less centralized than the Republicans). But they don't have to.

    Would all of that really deny Palin the nomination? Search me. But it can damage her enough, it can make the campaign unbearable enough, it can make her chances in the general remote enough that she might opt out on her own. Or, she might think she's on a mission from god (hell, she might BE on a mission from god, how would I know?) and stick it out. But the point is, the fact that Republican insiders didn't use their clout against McCain doesn't prove that they don't HAVE clout, or that they won't use it against Palin.

  11. Mr. Bernstein:
    Do you not remember RFK's short-lived 1968 run? Also, too, while the public at large thinks she is a farce, Palin does have the most motivated base in the Republican Party. One thing not in her favor is the fact that Republicans changed their nomination process. None of the early states are winner take all anymore. That's probably the biggest strike against Palin. Under the old rules, she could have picked off a place like South Carolina if three or 4 candidates were in the race.

  12. Phil,
    What about RFK in 1968 is relevant here?

    As for the rules...the early primaries & caucuses have never been about the delegate count, so I don't think that it matters whether SC is winner-take-all or not. As for her "most motivated base", the question is whether that will still be true if they're asked to choose between Palin and another solidly conservative Republican.

  13. Hey Colby,

    Once again I appreciate your engagement of my argument, you make several good points, I am sorry that I only got to this now that the thread has fallen so far below the fold. For me, your best argument is that McCain may have appeared to be "Dead Man Walking" during the window when the Republican insiders, worried that a Democratic campaign might have Swift Boated him, could have pulled the veto plug. As you rightly note, in mid-2007 such a veto would have seemed wholly unnecessary given the disarray in McCain's campaign.

    You are also correct to point out that the Democratic line of attack in 2008 was not of the Swift Boat variety. I think I am too crass to unpack the argument without saying something politically incorrect; so I'll simply reply that the lack of Swift Boating may have had something to do with the opponent; if McCain had faced the Clinton War Machine the general election may have had an entirely different feel. Though, as you note, Bush (who, in fairness, had his own "Fredo-Corleone-from-a-great-military-family" baggage) also laid off McCain in 2000.

  14. The best part about your posts, though, was that you laid off the most ignorant aspect of my argument, which I realized not long after my last post yesterday:

    -Those Republican insiders are not acting to promote the greater good of the Republican party. That's the kind of crap you only see in the movies or on Fox News. No one is like that in real life. The reason aspirational candidates have to kiss the ring of powerful insiders is because, well, the insiders have said ring and they like to be indulged. Only a naive fool (like me, earlier in this thread) would think that such insiders are looking out for the good of the party. The insiders just like to feel that they matter, to re-apply a thought from Matt Jarvis on the Gingrich thread.

    So while I struck out horribly in my first at-bat on this 'veto of McCain's ridiculous military career' issue, now that I've seen the pitcher, I still have some Palinistic ideas for my second time at the plate. For while those insiders may not be protecting the party, in desiring to feel like they matter, the overwhelming power of ubiquitous 21st century media may be forcing their hand - and that may be the thing rendering them irrelevant.

  15. Revisiting Matt Jarvis' point that party insiders could keep (non-ring-kissing) candidates off the ballot 100 years ago, the biggest difference between then and now is probably the overwhelming diffusion of media. Why that matters is: nowadays there comes a point at which a candidate must achieve something like escape velocity, powered by the media, "escaping" from the need for an insider to "make" them via endorsement.

    When a candidate has been "made" by the media/zeitgeist, the power switches, as the only thing the insider has left to do is endorse them - irrespective of any ring kissing - for any attempt to derail such a candidate would make the insider look out of touch, and do utterly no damage to the candidate.

    I think this notion of escape velocity partially explains Obama's success in the last 18 months of the 2008 campaign. Unlike Palin, Obama pressed quite a bit of flesh. But like Palin, Obama's primary source of power was the grass roots enthusiasm that was expressed in media outlets big and small.

    By the time the Clinton War Machine had taken stock of the threat from Obama, it was too late, as Obama was a "made" man - not by the insiders, most of whom were in the orbit of the Clintons - but by millions of us nobodies, who by our collective media created an Obama endorsement that was virtually impossible for those insiders to deny, whether or not Obama indulged them. This, it strikes me, is the power of this new, overwhelming, multifaceted media.

    Back to Palin - if I had to guess, I would say she has not yet achieved Obama-esque escape velocity. It seems to me that she could still be pulled back if the correct disgruntled people so desired.

    Having said that, I also suspect she's a lot closer to such escape velocity than her critics would be comfortable admitting.

  16. "Why that matters is: nowadays there comes a point at which a candidate must achieve something like escape velocity, powered by the media, "escaping" from the need for an insider to "make" them via endorsement. "

    I think this is right, and I'd like to synthesize it with another point of yours, that the insiders aren't looking out for the party's (or the country's!) best interests.

    Let me kinda sketch that out: when a candidate reaches a point where they don't need an insider to vouch for them and may be immune to insiders' vetoes (and I think Palin is probably at that point, actually), they also risk pissing off those insiders. Obviously, the insiders don't want to lose their clout, y'know? So if an "outside" candidate looks like they're gonna clean house, the insiders are going to close ranks against him/her. Again, this might not take the form of a veto- it's probably too late for that. But they can do those other things I mentioned above, that may sink the candidate in the actually primaries, or make them miserable enough to drop out on their own (or maybe do nothing, but the insiders will undoubtedly feel it's worth a shot).

    You didn't see this happen with McCain or Obama (okay, not to a great extent with Obama) because neither of them really made it seem like they were gonna cast out the "insiders". McCain's campaign was run by a couple old Bush hands, and when he got into trouble, he turned to sitting Senators and Governors to bail him out. Obama attracted several old Clinton hands to his campaign, and made it clear in a variety of ways that he wasn't head-hunting for any others.

    I don't know if Palin would offer such assurances, or if she even could given her base of support. But then, I think she's already at "Escape velocity" now; if she has two years to build on it, the insiders may not be able to stop her anyway. They'll just want to.

  17. Your last got me thinking about my assessment that the hour was getting late for the elites to derail Palin, and the difference between that view and yours that, in fact, its too late for the elites to stop Palin.

    Why do I only think that the hour is late? Because somehow Palin's grassroots feels different from Obama's. I am sure Nate Silver has data. For me personally, it probably has more to do with the fact that I was a full-fledged, banner-waving Obamacon in 2008, and I honestly cannot envision the circumstances in which I'd ever vote for Palin.

    Which is part of the problem with endorsement via the masses: To paraphrase the great Oliver Wendell Holmes, you can't define it, but you know it when you see it. Or so it seems. But do you really? Or is your perception colored by cognitive biases?

    Leads to the following: if escape velocity is much harder to pinpoint then old-fashioned elite endorsement, and if pulling back one such as Palin is an unpleasant exercise for those elites, you might expect elites to wait too long after deceiving themselves that they have more time for the unpleasant task. Which leads to a conclusion that might make Yogi Berra proud:

    Even if its not too late for elites to stop Palin, realistically, its too late.

  18. Unreal: man oh man, most of you posters are really OTL.

  19. She runs, the presidency is hers.


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