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McCain Is Stuck With Palin

Commentators on the left, right and center, reacting with near-horror to Sarah Palin’s interview with Katie Couric, have each suggested that John McCain ought to put Palin on the next flight to Ketchikan, and replace her with another vice presidential nominee.

Now, none of these folks are necessarily arguing that this would be a good move for McCain electorally. They instead seem to be arguing, in essence, that it would be good for the country (how small-minded of them!).

But could such a move actually help McCain at the ballot box? My feeling is absolutely not, for several reasons:

1. Destroys Base Morale. No matter how well this is spun — Palin withdrew to tend to her family because the liberal media are big meanies! — Palin remains a major reason why conservative activists are showing up every day to make phone calls for John McCain. And to remove her from the ticket now would be a slap in the face. Now, I had argued before that McCain essentially ought to call the base’s bluff — nominate someone who appeals to independents, and almost literally dare them to vote for Barack Obama. But that was at least assuming that McCain would have a full two months or so to smooth things over, and convince them that Tom Ridge (or whomever) wasn’t such a bad guy. If McCain were to drop Palin now, however, a lot of these folks would be heartbroken — and a lot of them would not turn out, particularly if an Obama victory appeared inevitable anyway. Not only would this hurt McCain, but it would also harm downballot candidates; the odds of Democrats finishing with 60+ Senate seats or 260+ House seats would increase markedly.

2. No Obvious Alternative. If the Republicans had some obvious next-runner-up like Hillary Clinton sitting on the sidelines, this maneuver might become more viable. However, they do not, which is part of the reason that Palin had been picked in the first place.

With less than zero time for a roll-out of the replacement, he would almost have to be a familiar brand name. Mitt Romney? With the nation’s attention focused on the economy, he’d seem to be the most likely choice, but a lot of people don’t like him, and “Bain Capital” is not exactly compatible with “Main Street”. Besides, would Romney really want to associate himself with what would probably be a losing ticket, when he could instead position himself as Mr. Fix-It in 2012? Rudy Giuliani? He’s but that’s moving in the direction of national security credentials at a time the country is interested in other things. And talk radio would revolt. Joe Lieberman? I’m not even sure that McCain could pull that off even if he wanted to; some prominent members of the RNC (who have a veto) might object, happy enough to throw what they’d think to be a losing nominee under the bus for the sake of preserving the conservative movement. Fred Thompson? Actually might be the least-bad alternative, as he rehabilitated his image some with a strong convention speech. But he ran perhaps the most indifferent campaign in modern history, and the last thing the Republicans need is another VP nominee who doesn’t seem particularly serious about the office of the Presidency. Which brings us to…

3. McCain Has Overplayed the Game-Changer Card. McCain already runs the risk of his campaign appearing to be something of a three-ring circus, with Britney Spears in one ring, Palin in another, and the “suspension” of his campaign in a third. To replace Palin now might make his campaign seem like a farce. And when was the last time the candidate who was the butt of more jokes won the election? Possibly 1992, but the presence of Ross Perot — not to mention Dana Carvey’s terrific George H.W. Bush — made the comedy inherent in that election more or less an equal opportunity affair.

Finally, while there isn’t much hard evidence to go on, there is this: George McGovern went from 19 points behind Richard Nixon in a Gallup poll taken in mid-July 1972 — just after Thomas Eagleton had been nominated at the Democratic convention — to a -26 in early August after he had dumped Eagleton from the ticket.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.