Most of the reasonably well-informed Repubicans I know think the race for the Republican presidential nomination is wide-open. They see a field of high-profile candidates consisting potentially of Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, Sarah Palin, and Newt Gingrich, along with a few successful governors such as Tim Pawlenty, Mitch Daniels, Haley Barbour, Bobby Jindal, or Chris Christie. This sort of clash seems particularly intriguing because the potential candidates can be viewed as representing establishment/country club Republicans (Romney), evangelical Republicans (Huckabee), Tea Party Republicans (Palin), the spirit of 1994 (Gingrich), and good government Republicans (the governors).
But, as I’ve suggested before, there’s another way of looking at 2012 that I find at least as plausible: the nomination is Sarah Palin’s to lose. This view is based on a series of assumptions, all of which I consider fairly strong, though certainly subject to question.
The first assumption is that Palin will run. Her decision to quit during the middle of her first term as governor of Alaska can be viewed as evidence that she does not want to hold office. But it can also be viewed as reflecting her sense that the Alaska job wasn’t big enough for her. In any event, her behavior during this election season demonstrates that, at a minimum, she’s keeping the option of a presidential run open. I think there’s a good chance she will exercise that option.
The second assumption is that the Tea Party movement will back Palin and that she will capture most of the Tea Party vote. Her reception at Glenn Beck’s rally convinces me that this assumption is sound. Moreover, Palin and the Tea Party Express have been on the same page in most (but not all) of the hot primary contests this year. Finally, where else is that vote going to go? Romney instituted a program of mandatory health insurance in Massachusetts. Huckabee was not a small government governor. Gingrich was a Washington insider. Governors who actually served out their terms probably made some tough decisions that won’t appeal to Tea Party purists.
The third assumption is that, backed by the Tea Party movement, Palin can win between 30 and 40 percent of the vote in many of the early multi-candidate primaries and caucuses. This doesn’t seem like a reach, given the vote count for Tea Party movement candidates this year. In Nevada, for example, Sharron Angle (unfancied at first) won the Senate nomination in a three main candidate race with 40 percent of the vote. Meanwhile, across the country, Christine O’Donnell, who has never made a mark in prior campaigns, seems set to ride Tea Pary support (plus that of Palin) to a strong showing and possible primary victory, albeit in a field devoid of a true conservative option.
The fourth assumption is that Palin can ride a vote count of 30 to 40 percent in crowded early primaries to the front of the pack and then increase that count to 50 percent plus as the field narrow in the later primaries. John McCain’s campaign in 2008 supports the view that a candidate can get out front by consistently winning 30 to 40 percent of the vote in the early, multi-candidate field. What might happen once the field narrows is anyone’s guess. But unless Palin self-destructs along the way, I question whether anyone in the likely field is capable of defeating her head-to-head.
By now, I’ve ventured further into the realm of speculation than even I’m comfortable going. But you get the idea: if Sarah Palin seeks the presidential nomination, it will be quite plausible to view her not as one of many or even “first among equals,” but as the clear front-runner.
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