Tuesday, September 28, 2010

How to Think About Palin

Last week, I never got around to doing some of the presidential nomination blogging I meant to do in response to an interesting exchange between Ross Douthat, DiA's R.L.G., and Douthat again about whether the Sage of Wasilla is or is not the frontrunner.  It's a good discussion, although one correction is needed; R.L.G. claims that the nomination contest begins in November, but in fact it's already been going on for almost two years.  Certainly that's the case for Sarah Palin, whether or not she winds up running in 2012 -- she's been running for 2012 since (at least) election day, 2008.  That's not something unique to Palin; Hillary Clinton and John Edwards started running for 2008 no later than, well, let's say the day after the election in 2004.  Ronald Reagan began running for 1980 immediately after the 1976 convention; indeed, one might argue that Reagan did nothing but run for president from the time he first gave his famous speech for Barry Goldwater in 1964, with time outs only for his two campaigns for governor of California (it's just a bit of an exaggeration; he probably put the presidency on the back burner from the end of his nomination campaign in summer 1968 through the 1972 election, more or less).

At any rate: Sarah Palin.  I've been thinking about how to think about her candidacy, and what I've realized is that the best way is in the terms Nelson W. Polsby used in his classic Consequences of Party Reform.  Polsby believed that the new party nomination system put in place forty years ago gave advantages to factional candidates over coalition-forming candidates.  Now, as a former Polsby student, I have to say that I think his analysis was useful for the 1970s, but is now dated.  At first, parties did not know how to control nominations after reform, but soon they learned, as demonstrated by Cohen, Karol, Noel, and Zaller in The Party Decides (or see my article about Howard Dean and 2004).  But regardless of whether she will win or not, characterizing Palin as a factional candidate is, I think, helpful.  In the 1970s, observers as first believed that George McGovern's nomination in 1972 showed that reform favored ideological extremes, with purist Democratic activists inevitably favoring the left-most candidate regardless of what would happen in November.  Jimmy Carter, however, was no left-winger.  Polsby realized that what McGovern and Carter had in common was that they were mobilizing factions, except that in Carter's case his faction was a purely personal one.

I think that's how to think about Sarah Palin as a presidential candidate: she'll be mobilizing the Palin faction.  Yes, she's embracing conservative issue positions to the extent that she talks policy, but her endorsements are more idiosyncratic, and she (pragmatically?) endorsed relatively moderate candidates in Iowa and New Hampshire during this election cycle.  She's a factional candidate, with a personal faction, not an ideological or group-based faction.

How does that affect her chances of winning?  Parties -- that is, party leaders such as elected officials, party-aligned interest group leaders, the partisan press, and others -- have (see above citations) learned how to stop factional candidates they do not want to win their nominations, whether it was Pat Buchanan or Steve Forbes or Jesse Jackson.  That is, parties can do so if they collectively choose to do so.  It could be that some party leaders opt in to the Palin faction for whatever reason, and a split result would give her a much better chance of winning.  It does strike me that personal factions are, over time, a lot weaker than ideological or group-based factions.  Democrats had to be exceedingly careful with Jesse Jackson because they needed the faction he represented.  I'm not sure the same will be true of Palin.  On the other hand, factional leaders who represent groups within the party can be bought off by offering something substantive that the group wants (I should emphasize that I don't mean "bought off" as a pejorative; it's how coalition politics works, which I think is a very good thing).  The problem with buying off a personal faction is that it gets down to what the individual candidate wants, and individuals are a lot more unpredictable than are groups.

This doesn't mean either that Palin can't win or that she'll definitely win...it's easy for me to imagine either scenario.  I do think, however, that thinking of her as a factional candidate with a personal faction helps to clarity what's going on.


  1. I thought that Romney is by definition the front-runner, since he has won almost all the polls since early 2009.

  2. Is Palin's a personal faction?
    I can definitely see it: book sales, people in comments boards who think Palin is the bee's knees, etc.
    But, isn't that faction also ideological? Poll Palin supporters, and I think you'll find a heck of a lot of issue coherence amongst them. Social conservativism, I think, would be a rule amongst them. Yes, their annointed one can, apparently, do no wrong, but what do we make of a faction that's both personal and ideological? Does it inherit the weaknesses of one or the other? Both? Neither? Strengths? (Even if Palin's is only a personal one, I think the question is still an interesting one)

  3. IMO, there's more to being the frontrunner than leading in polls. Polls this far out basically measure name recognition (well, except for Palin, who is unusual in that she's well known but not all that well-liked by her own party).

    I agree that Matt's questions are interesting. Obviously, Palin has some issue constraints imposed by who her supporters are. My guess is, though, that at this point, probably more so than in 2008, her serious supporters would probably be pretty flexible for her on a lot of issues.

  4. How do you think the change in the zeitgeist influences Palin's 'personal faction'? Specifically, the biggest difference between Palin and Buchanan/Forbes/Jackson may be that one never did think of earlier such candidates separate from their faction, perhaps in part because entities such as Fox did not exist to give those earlier candidates ubiquitous 'mainstream' cred.

    I like the personal faction framework, though from here in the cheap seats, it seems as though Fox News/right wing radio gives Palin a showcase to transcend the limitations of the personal faction, a showcase never available to earlier others such as Forbes, Buchanan or Jackson. That showcase may make her seem universal, and maybe in primary politics, 90% of success really is showing up.

    I think this distinction matters, though I've no idea how much.


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