Now that the 2010 midterms are over, it is a good time to discuss Sarah Palin’s prospects for 2012. While there have been accusations flying back and forth over whether or not Palin helped or hurt 2010 candidates, her own personal popularity is greater than at any time since the 2008 election, and she is at last being taken seriously in many establishment conservative circles, such as the National Review, where she had previously been seen as a joke. Overall, if she continues to make good choices she should be in relatively good shape for a presidential run in 2012.
Indeed, if the GOP primaries were held today, there is little doubt that she would win the nomination. Opinion polls showing Romney and Huckabee ahead are meaningless at this point. For example, if we had gone by opinion polls in 2008, Giuliani and not McCain would have been the GOP nominee. However, Giuliani was never a factor in 2008, because while he was admired and liked by many Republicans, the small subset of Republicans who were primary voters did not support him for president. Though both Romney and Huckabee have their fans, it is a question–given their positions on a variety of issues–if either can get enough support in the primaries to win the nomination. In many ways, Romney’s positions come across as Obama-lite. Meanwhile, Huckabee may be loved by some in the pro-life crowd, but comes with significant questions about his judgment and his positions on federalism and economic issues. At the same time, a whole host of GOP governors are being offered up as potential candidates for 2012, but with the exception of Christie of New Jersey, none have been able to capture the imagination of GOP regulars. (And Christie does not look at all like he is interested in running.) While on paper these GOP governors may look like good presidential candidates, most have proven to be poor speakers who have limited personal appeal to people outside of their home states.
Likely, a Palin primary run would look very much like McCain’s primary run in 2008. She would probably under-perform in Iowa (as is the case of most GOP front runners), and then stumble in New Hampshire (especially if Romney enters the race). This would lead the press and pundits to say that she is finished. Then, of course, she would come roaring back as the primaries enter the Midwest, West, and the South. Romney, with his ties to Obamacare, will certainly gain less traction than he did in 2008, and Huckabee will fade as people get a closer look at his political leanings.
On the Democrat side, unless Obama is forced from office by some scandal, we should expect him to be the nominee. Hillary Clinton says she will not run in 2012 and 2016, and we should take her at her word. It is quite possible that she and Bill have come to the conclusion that she cannot win in the primaries as she is both too sane and too conservative for what is left of the Democrat Party. Obama, though unpopular, would still be a considerable force in 2012. He would certainly carry New York, most or all of New England, and the West Coast. Since he will carry close to 90% of the black vote, and since there is still a solid core of Democrat stalwarts distributed unevenly in a few key states, Obama could still win the general election, especially if there is a third-party candidate to split the vote.
On the other hand, for Palin to win in 2012, she will need to get a high percentage of the independent vote, along with some of the Democrat vote. However, up to now she has proven to be a polarizing figure with exactly these two groups.
In this regard, it is helpful to remember the experience of Ronald Reagan in the run-up to the 1980 election. Previous to the election he was generally considered by many people, even within the Republican Party, as a dangerous extremist who was a more than a little bit flaky. However, after out-foxing his GOP opponents in the primaries, he chose George H. W. Bush as his running mate. At that time Bush was one of the standard-bearers of the Rockefeller wing of the Republican Party—a group that Reagan had fought against for nearly his entire political career. Reagan’s selection of Bush helped assure many people that he was not as extremist as they had thought. Next, Reagan provided a clear road map for the recovery of the American economy and American self-esteem. Finally, he bested the sitting president, Jimmy Carter, in the debate. Carter came across as wooden, tired, defeated, mediocre, and silly. Watch what happened when he tried to misrepresent Reagan’s ideas and paint him as an extremist:
With this one short statement, Carter was defeated both in the debate and the general election. And when the Iran hostages came home on Inauguration Day, most people—including many who still hated him—were glad that Reagan was president.
For Palin to win in 2012, she will have to reassure people in the middle that she is not a flake or an extremist. If she cannot do this, she will not be able to close the deal and become president. Taking a cue from Reagan’s playbook, there are four things that she will need to do if she wants to win in 2012:
- She will need to be more careful in managing her endorsements. She had valid reasons to endorse Joe Miller and Christine O’Donnell for the Senate: Murkowski represented machine politics at its worst, and Castle was a Specter clone who could not be depended upon in important votes and who would have done immense damage to the GOP brand. Having said that, neither Miller nor O’Donnell was ready for prime time. Both made fatal, unforced errors that doomed their campaigns. When your Senate candidates appear to be uncomfortable with the idea of shaving or have to deny being Satanists, you either have to kick them in the butt and tell them to shape up, or you need to rethink the possibility of endorsing them.
- She will need to present a plan to deal with the economy, the complete financial disarray of the US government, and the decline of US prestige abroad. She will need to present a soaring image of what America was and can once again become. While she must not over-promise, or deny that hard times and hard choices may be ahead, she needs to present an optimistic vision for the future of America—a vision that a tired American people can buy into.
- She will need to select a nationally known, establishment Republican as her running mate. She will not need to shore up her base, but she will need to appeal to independents and to forestall a possible (and likely) third-party bid from some moderate/liberal Republican stalwarts à la John Anderson in 1980. While there would be pressure from conservatives to select someone like Paul Ryan in order to compensate for a perceived lack of gravitas on the ticket, Paul Ryan is not well-known outside of conservative circles and so would add nothing to the ticket. Her choice would need to be someone perceived as ready to step in as president at a moment’s notice, and someone who would be able to reassure independents and moderates. Though it would be a hard choice for many supporters to swallow and I hate to say this, looking at the electoral map Romney currently fits these requirements best. Romney would put Massachusetts and several other New England states in play, would guarantee Michigan, and would help in the Midwest. Though Utah will no doubt vote Republican in 2012 regardless of who is on the ticket, a Mormon would also deliver Nevada (and it is entirely possible that the election may come down to Nevada, of all places).
- She will need to have a “There you go again!” moment in the debates. While Obama has always excelled in demagoguery and glib sound bites, he is rarely able to present a coherent argument without the use of a teleprompter, and has made numerous mistakes in his speeches throughout his political career (errors which up to now the press has helped cover over). If he appears hostile, patronizing, and dismissive in the debates, reciting sound bites and talking points rather than connecting with the voters, and Palin comes across as relaxed, reasonable, on top of the issues, and likable, then Palin can win the debates and the election.
Of course, all of this is just gazing at a crystal ball. There are a million things that will happen between now and the 2012 election, and any one of them could derail this scenario. However, at the same time it is clear that Palin is still very much a possibility as president in 2012, but that she will need to prove her mettle in the political arena if she really wants to win.
- Republican 2012 Nominee: Who It Won’t Be (outsidethebeltway.com)
- Tea Party Express chair to Romney: We’ll never forget RomneyCare (hotair.com)
- Poll: Palin ‘most polarizing’ of GOP wannabes (capitolhillblue.com)
- Poll: Palin favorability highest with 2012 GOP voters (thehill.com)