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A First Look at Palin’s Primary Math

If Sarah Palin runs for the Republican nomination in 2012 — and I’ve been on record for some time as predicting that she will — what are likely to be her best and worst states? And how do these strengths and weaknesses square with the Republican primary calendar? And what about the other likely candidates?

The first, very, very important thing to notice is that the Republican primary calendar will be different in 2012 than it was two years ago. Although this could change as states jockey for position and rules are amended, for the time being the Republicans have divided the states into five groupings as seen below:

The first states to vote are the traditional early states of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. These states are shown in light blue. Note that this list does not include Florida and Michigan, which jumped in the queue to try to vote early in 2008 — although who knows whether they’ll be in a more cooperative mood this time around when push comes to shove.

Next to vote are the orange states, which are grouped together by virtue of their small populations. This includes 14 states and several territories, the largest grouping of which is on the prairies and the Western frontier, although there are also several New England states. Notably, no Southern states vote in this group — the Republican calender definitely de-emphasizes the South.

Finally, there are gold, purple and green groupings of some of the larger states. These groups have some geographical integrity — for instance, most of the traditional Midwestern Rust Belt states are in the gold group, whereas the purple states tend to be more coastal and the green more in flyover country — although there are some exceptions. The order in which the gold, purple and green states vote will rotate every cycle and, to my knowledge, has not yet been determined for 2012.

So where is Palin likely to run strongest? Obviously, it would depend on the candidates she’s up against and the type of campaign she might want to run, but I think we can make some basic inferences. What I’ve done is to create an index of how favorable each state is to Palin based on six variables: fundraising totals to date for SarahPAC, and five demographic and attitudinal variables taken from 2008 exit polls.

Fundraising: What I looked at is the ratio of contributions that Palin has received in each state so far through SarahPAC to the amount of contributions received by all Republican candidates in the 2008 cycle. The idea is to see how Palin compares vis-a-vis a typical Republican candidate — indeed, I’ve found fundraising data to have quite a bit of predictive power in the past, even if the data is a little rough at this stage. Relative to other Republicans, Palin’s best fundraising state is, of course, Alaska. Her fundraising has also been quite strong in the Pacific Northwest, and many of the prairie/frontier states. It has been weakest on the East Coast, as well as several other urban and industrial states located throughout the country. The fundraising data receives double weight in our index.

Variables from 2008 Exit Polls: What I looked at is not what a state’s electorate looked like overall, but rather, the characteristics of the McCain (i.e. Republican) voters in each state. This is an important distinction — for instance, although Oregon is a fairly progressive state overall, the conservatives there are quite conservative and rural, and this is what matters in the context of a Republican primary. Note that, although it would probably have been better to look at exit polling data from the 2008 Republican primaries, a lot of states either didn’t have a competitive primary in 2008 or didn’t have exit polling data available; thus, we look at McCain general election voters as our best proxy.

Specifically, the exit polling variables that I evaluated were as follows:

Rural and small town voters. That is, the percentage of McCain voters in each state that come from communities of less than 50,000 people. Palin spent a great deal of time campaigning in exurban and fairly rural areas in 2008, and I suspect that it’s here — not necessarily among soccer moms in the collar suburbs — where her most enthusiastic voters lie. And Palin herself, of course, comes from a very rural area and is appealingly outdoorsy and self-reliant. This variable receives a double weight.

No college voters. Early polls of the 2012 Republican field, such as from Marist and Rasmussen, show Palin overperforming among this group (or, if you prefer, underperforming among college graduates), which certainly squares with my intuition about where her appeal lies. This variable also receives a double weight.

Conservatives. We also look at the number of McCain general election voters who described themselves as conservative in each state, although it receives only a single weight. Although clearly Palin wears the conservative label very comfortably and is liable to be harmed in states where there are a relatively large number of moderates and independents in the primary electorate, there are likely to be at least a couple other capital-C conservatives in the Republican primary field, which means we need to temper this somewhat.

White Evangelicals. Although Palin also polls well among this group, a lot of this may be because a lot of white evangelicals are also rural and lack a college degree. That is, although Palin runs well among the sorts of voters who happen to be evangelicals, it may not be because they’re evangelicals. Nor, although Palin has increasingly invoked religious rhetoric in her speeches, does she have the scholarly religious credibility of someone like a Mike Huckabee or a Pat Robertson. It’s conceivable that Palin could get outflanked by a Huckabee or lose votes to a Santorum among voters who are evangelicals first and working-class whites second. Thus, although we include this variable, we only give it a single weight.

Energy and Terrorism voters. Lastly, although this is a bit speculative, we look at the percentage of McCain voters in each state who said their votes were determined because of energy or terrorism policy, which appear as though they’ll be Palin’s core issues. These issues — particularly terrorism — lend themselves relatively well to the meta-narratives that Palin prefers and require less policy nuance than something like the economy or health care. This variable receives a single weight.

These six variables are then standardized and the z-scores are added up to produce an overall total, with the first three variables (fundraising, rural, no college) counted twice. Ranked from most favorable to Palin to least favorable, the 50 states rate as follows (red indicates a ‘hot’ state that is favorable to Palin, while blue indicates the opposite):

We can also plot these on a map:

Palin’s strengths, roughly speaking, lie in a diagonal belt that stretches from the northwest corner of the country through the Deep South; she may not do particularly well in the Northeast and the Southwest. Looking at the interplay between these states and the calendar:

First Wave States. Among the first four states to vote, both Iowa and South Carolina should be winnable for Palin. Although Iowa is not a perfect match for her — not quite as many no-college voters as she’d like — it holds a caucus rather than a primary, which tends to bring out a more conservative electorate. The most obvious concern for Palin in Iowa, if he runs, is Mike Huckabee, who won there in 2008. She could also conceivably lose a war of attrition if a candidate like Santorum eats away some of her evangelical vote, or if her organization and infrastructure is not up to par. The inclusion of a regional candidate like John Thune or Mike Pence could cut either way for Palin; they are not yet terribly well defined and it’s unclear whether they’ll run to the right-center (in which case they could cause more problems for someone like Romney) or further to the right (trouble for Palin).

If Palin loses in Iowa, she would almost certainly need a victory in South Carolina, which is a decent enough state for her demographically but which has a quirky political culture and tends to prefer candidates from the South. Huckabee could be tough to knock off in South Carolina, especially if he’s won Iowa, and a candidate like Haley Barbour or Rick Perry could be challenging to her (probably less so someone like Newt Gingirch, who is nominally a Southerner but has more appeal to coastal voters). Although the South will be somewhat de-emphasized by the structure of the Republican primary calendar, Palin would clearly benefit from the inability of any bona fide Southerner to gain traction in the polls, in which case she might become the de facto Southern candidate.

Palin is unlikely to perform well in New Hampshire, which apart from being fairly rural does not play to any of her strengths and where she might have to face Mitt Romney or Scott Brown. Nevada, meanwhile, is another caucus state in which Romney dominated in 2008.

Palin is probably fortunate that neither Florida or Michigan will hold an early primary, as we have both rated as below-average states for her. Michigan has a fairly robust track record of preferring moderate Republicans, both in elections to the Congress and in Republican primaries, where the electorate is pushed to the left by the presence of a very engaged set of independent voters in the open primary. Plus, there may once again be the Romney factor to contend with. Florida’s Republican voters, meanwhile, are relatively urban and reasonably well-educated, and my hunch is that Palin will not play well with groups like Cuban and non-Cuban Hispanics and Jewish voters who collectively make up about 15 percent of the state’s Republican primary electorate.

Second Wave States. If Palin survives the four early voting states, the next wave of states — the small states indicated in orange on the map — are potentially very good for her. Five of Palin’s six best states, indeed — Alaska, Wyoming, North Dakota, Montana and West Virginia — fall into the orange group; she could even do relatively well in a state like Maine, which is quite rural. The one caveat is that smaller states tend to place more emphasis on infrastructure and organization, which may not be Palin’s strength (that’s why Mitt Romney, who excels in that department, tended to do well in these states in 2008). But demographically speaking, they should be very fruitful territory for her.

Later Wave States. The remaining states are divided into green, purple, and gold groups, and it may be tremendously important to Palin in exactly which order they wind up voting in. Whereas the green states are quite good for her, both the purple states and the gold states are rather poor.

The green group contains plenty of good states for Palin, although there would probably be a lot of emphasis placed on delegate-rich Texas, where Palin will need to do well since she’s unlikely to pick up many delegates from coastal states like California and New York. Indeed, Texas may be the most important state on the map for Palin after Iowa and perhaps South Carolina, which may be why she’s spending so much time there.

If the gold group comes up instead, Palin’s best chance for a big win looks to be Ohio, although Georgia, Florida and Pennsylvania are probably also within reach.

The purple group would be very bad for Palin; she’d likely need to win both Indiana and North Carolina to stay alive, and Tennessee is OK for her, but even so she’d probably lose ground in the delegate count because of states like California, Virginia and New Jersey.

Palin’s path to victory, then, would seem to consist of one of the following scenarios:

Palin Plan A. Win Iowa. Win South Carolina. Clean up in orange states. You probably have enough momentum to survive the consolidation of the GOP field which is liable to occur at this point.

Palin Plan B. Lose Iowa narrowly, especially to a Midwestern candidate. Hope that a Southerner isn’t running strongly and win South Carolina. Clean up in orange states. Then you anchor in the South, winning Texas (green group), Florida/Georgia (gold group) or Indiana/North Carolina (purple group). At some point, you need to break through and win a big Midwestern battleground like Ohio or Wisconsin.

Palin Plan C. Win Iowa. Lose South Carolina narrowly to a Southern candidate. Regain momentum in orange states. Hope that green states vote next and aim in particular for a big win in Texas. If it’s the gold states instead, go all-in in Ohio and Pennsylvania. If it’s the purple states, you’ll need some help.

Conversely, Mitt Romney’s paths might look something like this, and are probably somewhat more straightforward than Palin’s.

Romney Plan A. Win Iowa. Win New Hampshire. Game over.

Romney Plan B-1. (If Palin is knocked out) Lose Iowa. Win New Hampshire. Win Nevada. Sweep orange states on the basis of organizational strength. Veer slightly to the left, emphasizing electability and cleaning up in delegate-rich states like California and New York. You probably outlast a Southern opponent like Huckabee, perhaps even fairly easily. A Midwesterner that could win states like Ohio, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania might be more challenging.

Romney Plan B-2. (If Palin survives) Lose Iowa. Win New Hampshire. Win Nevada. Split orange states with Palin on the basis of organizational strength. Hope that gold or purple states came up next, in which case you should build up a substantial delegate lead. If so, the party infrastructure may start to close ranks around you. If green states come up instead, Palin is tougher and you’re in for a war of attrition with flagging momentum.

Mike Huckabee, if he runs, really only has one path to victory and it isn’t a very good one since the calendar makes it tough for a Southern candidate to gain momentum:

Huckabee Plan A. Win Iowa. Win South Carolina. Knock out Palin and perhaps angle for her endorsement. Lower expectations for orange states and hope to at least win a couple contests like West Virginia and Nebraska. Hope that there are at least two centrist candidates remaining in the race while you consolidate the conservative vote. If it’s just you and Romney (etc.) one-on-one, you probably need to consistently win border states like Ohio/Florida (gold group), North Carolina/Indiana (purple group) or Missouri/Texas (green group).

Most of the other Southern candidates would have the same problem. Conversely, someone like a John Thune probably has a more versatile set of strategies. If Romney is knocked out (Thune is more likely to pull an upset in New Hampshire than someone like Palin or Huckabee), he can run on electability and is probably conservative enough so as not to feel like a compromise to the base. If Palin and/or Huckabee are knocked out instead, Thune should have some regional strength in the orange states and then would be headed to a key showdown or two with Romney in Midwestern states like Ohio.

It’s also conceivable that a strong Northeastern candidate, like Scott Brown, could run. His path would obviously need to involve winning New Hampshire and sweeping Maine/Delaware/Vermont/Rhode Island when the orange states vote. Then the contest probably becomes about the brute force of the delegate math, with big states like California, New York, Pennsylvania and Illinois being key.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.