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It’s Not Too Late for Imprudent Speculation About Other Republican Candidates

With the recent struggles of Herman Cain and Rick Perry, we may be in for yet another round of rumors about Republican candidates entering the presidential race late.

There was one such rumor on Wednesday from Lee Davis, a radio host in Birmingham, Ala., who cited unnamed sources close to Sarah Palin as saying that Ms. Palin was reconsidering her decision not to seek the nomination. (Audio of the segment in which Mr. Davis reported this information can be found here.)

The probability that these rumors will come to fruition is very low. Nevertheless, it’s worth at least considering the barriers that a candidate would face in entering the race now.

One major constraint is that the filing deadline has already passed in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida. So a candidate who entered now could not get her name on the ballot in those states, although some states, like New Hampshire, allow for write-in votes.

However, the candidate could participate in caucuses, including the Jan. 3 caucus in Iowa and the February caucuses in Maine, Nevada, Colorado and Minnesota, which do not have rigid filing deadlines.

She would also potentially be able to participate in the primaries in Arizona and Michigan on Feb. 28, which are the next primaries following a four-week gap after Florida. Arizona’s filing deadline is not until Jan. 9. Michigan’s deadline is a little tricky. The nominal deadline is Nov. 15, but candidates can also get on the ballot by petition if they collect 10,000 voter signatures by Dec. 9.

So the path for Sarah Palin or another late-entering candidate would look something like this:

1. Devote all your attention to Iowa and perform impressively enough there — ideally by winning — that you appear to be viable.

2. Watch as the other candidates duke it out in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida and hope that no one candidate sweeps them, in which case the winner is probably on his or her  way to the nomination. Maybe you can run a write-in bid if you think it can get you favorable media attention, but this would mostly be for show.

3. Consider how likely you are to win the caucuses in Maine, Nevada, Colorado and Minnesota in early February. If you think you can win them or otherwise perform well, make a strong play in one or more of the states. Otherwise spend your time in Arizona and Michigan while finding some other way to manage expectations and stay in the news.

4. Arizona and Michigan vote on Feb. 28. It is probably essential that you win at least one of these states.

If the candidate were able to accomplish each of these things, her late start would probably not be much of a barrier to her from that point onward. Florida, New Hampshire and South Carolina collectively account for only about 4 percent of the delegates to the Republican National Convention, so she would be at only a very modest disadvantage mathematically.

But the delegate math is one thing. Just how plausible is this scenario? Let’s examine it one step at a time in the context of Ms. Palin.

Step 1. Do well in Iowa. Iowa is quite wide open, especially if Mr. Cain’s polling numbers recede. It traditionally rewards candidates who spend a lot of time on the ground there, but that has not been true so far this year: Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann have put in the most hours so far, but Mr. Santorum’s polling is stagnant and Mrs. Bachmann’s is backtracking. This is among the easier steps for Ms. Palin, and she could devote virtually all of her time to Iowa from now through Jan. 3.

Step 2. Hope for a split decision in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida. This is more problematic. If Ms. Palin does well in Iowa — and she would need to — that probably means that one or more of the other conservative candidates will have performed disappointingly there. Under this scenario, Mitt Romney would almost certainly win New Hampshire. Florida and South Carolina could be more difficult for him, but without a strong conservative challenger, he could win them as well. Ms. Palin would need to count on a dark horse like Newt Gingrich to upend him in one of those states, or at least for Mr. Romney to win by an underwhelming enough margin that it would be difficult for him to claim that he had his party’s mandate. To a large extent, these factors would be outside Ms. Palin’s control.

Step 3. Manage expectations and stay in the news in early February, competing in caucuses so as to facilitate these goals. The relative lack of important nominating contests for the first three weeks of February could cut either way for a candidate like Ms. Palin. On the one hand, there will be plenty of boring news cycles, so she will not be at risk of being forgotten. On the other hand, if it looks as though Mr. Romney or another candidate is on his way to the nomination, party officials may be annoyed with anyone who is prolonging the process.

Step 4. Win Michigan or Arizona. Michigan could be problematic for Ms. Palin or any other candidate because it is a strong state for Mitt Romney, whose father was governor there. Mr. Romney won the state in 2008 and has performed well in recent surveys of the state.

Arizona could potentially be more fruitful. Mr. Cain and Mr. Perry have performed reasonably well there in recent polls, suggesting that there is an appetite for a conservative candidate. Arizona is a somewhat odd state for Ms. Palin, however, as it may be associated with her controversial comments about the shooting of Representative Gabrielle Giffords. Still, a candidate hoping to pursue such an unlikely path to the nomination would need to make a stand somewhere.

All of this, remember, is just to get back on an even footing against someone like Mr. Romney. The candidate would still need to win the majority of contests from there on out, many of which take place in relatively moderate coastal states.

So all of this is quite unlikely. But I would not go quite so far as to call it impossible. To some extent, the challenges that this schedule would present to Ms. Palin — difficulty in moderate coastal states, the lack of a traditional campaign infrastructure — are the same ones she would face no matter when she entered the race (particularly since she had seemed disinclined to build a traditional campaign team in the first place). In some ways, it might even be doing her a favor to have an excuse not to run in New Hampshire, which was likely to be a difficult state for her even under the best of circumstances.

How about a candidate like Chris Christie? Mr. Christie is, in my view, a much stronger candidate than Ms. Palin over all. If he sought the nomination, even now, he would have a shot at it.

At the same time, the inability to compete in New Hampshire would be more disadvantageous to Mr. Christie than it would be to Ms. Palin, since New Hampshire figured to be one of his stronger states. Mr. Christie, also, would probably be inclined to run a more traditional sort of campaign, building a strong staff around him. That would be a challenge on short notice, just as it would have if Mr. Christie began his campaign in October.

Still, the door is at least theoretically open for Ms. Palin, Mr. Christie or even Tim Pawlenty to run. And it won’t close anytime soon: California will not vote until June.

I don’t mean that entirely as a joke. It’s been a long time since we had a brokered convention. But if the nomination were stalemated after the first dozen or two states had voted, or if it seemed as if an “unelectable” candidate were in danger of being nominated, a candidate like Mr. Christie could potentially enter the race very late, demonstrating his popular support by performing strongly in late-voting states like California, Ohio and North Carolina and then winning the nomination as a consensus choice on the floor of the convention.

These scenarios, as fun as they would be for campaign reporters, are not at all likely. Probably, the beneficiary of all the difficulties in the conservative half of the Republican electorate will be Mr. Romney. But if the Republican electorate just does not take to Mr. Romney once the voting begins, the party will still have to find a nominee somehow.

That’s why I reserve an outside chance — I’d ballpark it at about 25-to-1 against — that the candidate to win the Republican nomination will be one who is not running now. Somewhat contrary to the common perception, the Republican calendar is quite backloaded this year — roughly as many delegates will be at stake in April, May and June as in January, February and March. So if the party does not find its nominee early, some back-door possibilities may open up.

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