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Sarah Palin’s Nomination Chances: A Reassessment

In November 2009, I wrote an article entitled “10 Reasons That Sarah Palin Could Win the Republican Nomination.” The article wasn’t necessarily arguing that she was the favorite to take the nomination, but it did suggest she had a credible chance at it.

In light of the developments of the last 13 months, it is probably worthwhile to revisit that assessment. Do these reasons still hold? Assuming that she runs, are her chances at becoming the Republican nominee stronger or weaker than they were a year ago? Let’s examine each of my original arguments in some detail.

1. Enthusiasm. People tend to see the electorate through a one-dimensional lens, in which a fixed number of voters are trying to decide between two or more candidates. But that’s not really how politics works, especially in primaries. Rather, the playing field is (at least) two-dimensional: people are not merely trying to decide whom to vote for, but also whether to vote at all. Because of the reach of her brand, Palin has the ability to engage the sorts of voters who might ordinarily stay at home. In the general election, that will include some voters who turn out to vote against her — but that’s less of a concern in the primaries.

Enthusiasm is difficult to discern in surveys: pollsters generally have more trouble anticipating who exactly is going to vote than which candidate they might vote for, especially in primaries where participation rates are relatively low. So, if Ms. Palin’s numbers are problematic in some polls — like in a recent CNN survey in which about half of Republicans say they’re unlikely to vote for her — this is not necessarily a crisis for her if the half of Republicans who are excited about Sarah Palin is also the half that is more likely to vote.

What’s a bit unusual for Ms. Palin, however, is that her support tends to be concentrated among Republicans with lower incomes and lower educational attainment — and these types of people are traditionally less likely to turn out in primaries.

On the one hand, this could lead to underestimating support for Ms. Palin once pollsters start applying “likely voter” models. There may be a sizable contingent of Republicans who find Ms. Palin to be a unique candidate and are especially motivated to vote for her, but who are screened out in such surveys because they did not participate in the Republican primaries in previous years.

On the other hand, she may need to actuate that support with get-out-the-vote efforts. It could be a mistake for her to rely too heavily on new technology to motivate voter turnout, because the downscale voters who might be most inclined to support her are generally less voracious consumers of information technology than are their wealthier, college-educated cousins. One trap that I can easily imagine Ms. Palin falling into is going too far in eschewing traditional campaign infrastructure, such as field offices.

2. 2010. Next November will probably be a happy night for Republicans and my guess is that the emergent conventional wisdom will be that it occurred because of, rather than in spite of, the Republicans eschewing moderation in favor of (re)building their base. In reality, that case is likely to be highly circumstantial at best — it might be that Republicans gain, I don’t know, 26 House seats, but would have gained 33 if they’d run more to the center. But that won’t prevent people from leaping to conclusions, and I expect those conclusions to tend to play favorably for Palin.

Here is a potential wrench in the works for Ms. Palin. Nov. 2 was, indeed, an extraordinarily successful night for Republicans. But — at least in terms of how the night was scored by the press — that victory was mitigated to some extent by the losses of certain Tea Party candidates in high-profile races: particularly Christine O’Donnell, Sharron Angle and Joe Miller, and to a lesser extent, Ken Buck.

Ms. Palin endorsed three of the four candidates, the exception being Mr. Buck. That isn’t such a big problem, though; she also picked a lot of winners.

The problem, rather, is that it brought the issue of electability to the fore, something that does not play well for Ms. Palin — she trails Barack Obama by double digits in head-to-head polls, whereas other Republican frontrunners like Mitt Romney are nearly tied with him. Did these Tea Party candidates lose because they were too conservative? Because they were too inexperienced? Because they were simply poor, unlikable candidates? Probably a little of each. Plenty of other Tea Party candidates, like Marco Rubio of Florida and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, did quite well, so we should be wary of oversimple explanations. Nevertheless, the public was willing to differentiate these candidates from others despite the magnitude of the Republican wave, and Republicans may be more reluctant to take such gambles in the future, when the political terrain is unlikely to be quite so favorable.

3. The other candidates are flawed. Mitt Romney has limited appeal to the evangelical base and is an unapologetically establishment candidate in a primary where anti-establishment sentiments are likely to prevail. Newt Gingirch has never been especially popular, has never won an election for any office higher than the U.S. House, and lost some street cred among conservative activists with his failure to endorse Doug Hoffman. Tim Pawlenty is unpopular in his home state, barely registering as a national candidate, and appears to suffer from Romney’s flaw of running away from his record. Mike Huckabee, I think, is underrated, but the conservative  Club for Growth crowd will never like him, and his hokeyness could grow a little tiresome in the face of a year-long primary campaign.

This is no less true than when I wrote it originally. Mr. Romney, if anything, might have a new problem now, given the central role that the Democrats’ health care bill is likely to play in the Republican primaries and that Massachusetts passed a highly similar bill when he was governor there. There have been a few Republicans, like Chris Christie and Paul Ryan, who have seen their stocks rise over the last year, but neither are yet household names (although Mr. Christie is getting there) and both have denied interest in the presidential derby. Ms. Palin is up against some fairly weak competition, and that surely helps her chances.

4. The other candidates might not run. Although I doubt that Palin can clear the conservative half of the GOP field, someone like a Huckabee could very well decide to go ahead and let Palin run her course, re-entering the field in a 2016 climate that is liable to be more favorable to Republicans.

There was a time not too long ago, back when President Obama’s standing was a little stronger, when you’d hear the argument that some of the Republican candidates might sit 2012 out, figuring that 2016 would present a clearer path toward victory. You don’t really hear that anymore. Mr. Obama will not be easy to defeat: his approval ratings have stopped their slide. But clearly, he is beatable. If his approval ratings are in November 2012 what they are right now — somewhere in the mid-to-high 40s — a reasonably strong Republican nominee would be about even-money to beat him, based on historical precedent.

Figure that you’re a Republican candidate like Mr. Romney or Mr. Huckabee. If you run in 2012, there’s perhaps a 50 percent chance that you’ll defeat Mr. Obama and become president, provided that you win your party’s nomination. If you wait until 2016 instead, there’s a 50 percent chance that you can’t really run at all since another Republican will already have become president. The remaining 50 percent of the time, you’ll nevertheless lose sometimes to whomever the Democrats nominate; they might nominate Hillary Clinton, who would be a formidable opponent. So, perhaps there’s a 50 percent chance that the Republican nomination is open in 2016 (because a Republican hadn’t already become president in 2012); of that 50 percent, you’ll win the election 55 percent of the time (historically, a party has been at a slight disadvantage after having won two consecutive terms, as the Democrats would have in this scenario, so the Republican candidate would probably be a very modest favorite). That works out to a 27.5 percent chance to become president in 2016 (contingent on having won the nomination), worse than the 50 percent chance you’d have in 2012.

Some of this is a little silly, by the way. It’s still too early to have more than the vaguest notion of how strong Mr. Obama’s position will ultimately be by November 2012. George H.W. Bush had approval ratings in the high 60s at a comparable point in 1990 and was considered almost certain to win re-election, which deterred many Democrats from entering the race. Fortunately for Democrats, Mr. Bush’s approval rating was barely half that by the time the election was held, and they found a diamond in the rough in Bill Clinton.

Still, I’d expect the Republican field to be fairly crowded. Mr. Obama’s position is decent, but it is certainly not strong enough to intimidate any candidates who would otherwise be interested in running for the presidency. Candidates might decline to run for other reasons, of course; Ms. Palin would probably stand the most to gain if Mike Huckabee and Newt Gingrich were not to run, as she is probably in the most direct competition with them for voters.

5. The media will be rooting for her. She’s good for the bottom line; off the top of my head, I’d guess that an Obama versus Palin election would generate at least 20-30 percent higher ratings than Obama against Mystery Republican X. Also, some players in the liberal media may be rooting for her because they’ll assume that a Palin victory in the primary could give Obama an easier path toward re-election.

The press has a complicated relationship with Ms. Palin — and vice versa — but it could be helpful to her in the following way: if there are moments when her campaign is struggling (and even winning campaigns inevitably have a few of those), she won’t need to worry about a lack of attention of the sort that causes some campaigns to die with a whimper rather than a bang. She’ll be a constant source of intrigue, and if the media is harsh and unfair to her at some points in time, it may also be looking to write her comeback story at others.

6. She’s tough to campaign against. Why? Because any perceived or real slight against Ms. Palin is taken by her supporters as an example of sexism, elitism, or media bias; just wait until Mr. Huckabee or Mr. Romney makes their first impolitic comment about her in a debate or an interview and watch the sparks fly.

Since the campaign hasn’t really begun, we haven’t yet had a good test of this theory yet. But, it rests to some extent on the notion that Ms. Palin would adopt a somewhat counter-attacking posture, rather than instigating fights. We’ll address this in a little more depth under point No. 8.

7. There are virtually no moderates left in the Republican base. Although, there may be a significant number of independents voting in some of the primary states, which makes things marginally harder for Palin than in election where many independents were sucked into the Democratic primaries.

This argument was, frankly, a bit hyperbolic at the time that I made it. There aren’t a lot of moderates in the Republican base, and their numbers are declining somewhat. But there are some: 27 percent of Republicans identify as either moderate or liberal.

And the number might be somewhat higher than that in a Republican primary since independents can vote in many states as well. Based on exit polls, the fraction of Republican primary voters identifying themselves as moderate or liberal was about one-third in the Republican primaries of 2008, although it varied significantly from state to state: just 12 percent in the Iowa caucus, for instance, but 45 percent in the New Hampshire primary. Certainly, a Republican could win her party’s nomination despite having almost no support among moderates, but it makes her path somewhat tougher.

8. Attempts by the Republican establishment to neuter her may backfire. This is a corollary of No. 6 above. If the establishment, owing to electability concerns or whatever else, tries to put hurdles in her way by re-structuring the primary or delegate allocation process, it may only play into the victimization complex of Palin and her supporters.

The Republican establishment has indeed begun to critique Ms. Palin quite explicitly. It is very important for Ms. Palin to address this criticism. No, not all Republicans care about what the panelists on Morning Joe, or the Wall Street Journal‘s editorial board, think, but enough value that their opinion might make the difference at the margin. Also — although I’m agnostic on the question as to how much “elite” opinion ultimately matters (it matters less than elites think it does, surely!) — it can sometimes be contagious, shaping the way that some broader spectrum of the public perceives a candidate.

Ms. Palin’s response so far — for instance, characterizing George H.W. Bush and Barbara Bush as “blue bloods” — has perhaps been somewhat lackluster. This is not necessarily an easy thing to deal with, mind you: people whom you considered to be allies starting to attack you.

But one thing that I suspect hurts Ms. Palin is that she herself initiates a lot of conflicts, and may lack discrimination in selecting her targets. Ms. Palin, for instance, recently picked a fight with Michelle Obama over her anti-obesity campaign. This seems an ill-considered choice: the president’s wife is quite popular, and so, I’m sure, are her efforts to combat childhood obesity. Sometimes in interviews, or in presidential debates, a candidate is asked what qualities she admires in her opponent, or in which areas she thinks he has performed well. The goal is generally to mention something so manifestly uncontroversial that you are essentially damning your opponent with faint praise. I can quite easily imagine a Republican candidate, faced with such a question, citing Mr. Obama’s attractive family, and heralding the steps that Ms. Obama has taken to combat obesity. Instead, Ms. Palin has chosen to engage Ms. Obama on this subject.

What does this have to do with how Ms. Palin responds to the criticisms from the Republican establishment? A politician has only so many arrows in her quiver. If everything that she says or does seems to convey the sense of being locked into an existential battle against the rest of the world, the public may eventually become fatigued, less able to differentiate the important fights from the unimportant ones, and less likely to see the politician as a victim rather than an aggressor.

If there were one piece of advice I would provide to Ms. Palin, it would be the following: pick your battles. You need to placate the concern that you couldn’t win a general election against Mr. Obama, because that is what this critique from the Republican establishment is ultimately all about. Save your efforts for that argument, as well as for the times that your opponents pick a fight with you, which will happen plenty often.

9. Parties tend to nominate more extreme candidates in elections against incumbents. This tendency is not all that robust, but you can find plenty of examples of parties nominating extremely liberal/conservative candidates in elections against incumbents, such as George McGovern, Ronald Reagan, Walter Mondale, and Barry Goldwater. There are some counter-examples too — Bill Clinton, arguably, and someone like Thomas Dewey if you want to go back that far — but on balance, parties seem to nominate more extremist candidates in elections against incumbents than in open seat contests.

This reads, in retrospect, like a relatively trivial point. In a case like Mr. Goldwater’s in 1964, or Mr. McGovern’s in 1972, the incumbent president seemed as though he would be very difficult to defeat, and that may have contributed to the opposition party placing less of a premium on electability and more on ideological purity. Republicans, certainly, are going to have those arguments over the next two years — but they will come against the backdrop of an election that will seem winnable than 1964 or 1972 did.

10. She gets new media; new media gets her. Conservative blogs love Palin, as do most of the shock jocks; they matter a great deal and may help Palin to overcome what I expect will prove to be a relatively shoddy traditional infrastructure.

There is no doubt that Ms. Palin “gets” new media. As she pointed out on her reality show, her use of the invented word “refudiate” became one of the top Google search topics within a matter of hours after her having introduced it in a 140-character Twitter post. Ms. Palin can, at virtually at a moment’s notice, cause the media to drop whatever other stories it is covering and upend the news cycle for a day. This is a unique and powerful ability.

But how about the other way around: what does new media think about Ms. Palin? Let’s make this less abstract: what is the prevailing sentiment about her in the conservative blogosphere?

Actually, I don’t know that there is any one prevailing sentiment. Republican-leaning blogs have matured significantly since 2008 and there are a lot of flavors of them: more conservative or more moderate, more professional or more amateur, more activist or more analytical.

Ms. Palin will surely receive enthusiastic support on some of these blogs. For instance, she won an informal straw poll earlier this month at the influential site, getting the support of 31 percent of participants, as compared to 15 percent for the second-place candidate, the radio host Herman Cain.

I would anticipate that other sites, however, might be less enthusiastic about her. Just as the liberal/progressive blogosphere divided itself between pro-Hillary Clinton websites and pro-Barack Obama ones in 2008 — even though the candidates had few substantive differences, fewer than the major Republican candidates probably will — I would expect something along the same lines to occur in the conservative blogosphere between now and 2012, with some sites being pro-Palin, some sites opposing her nomination, and many others splitting the difference. I don’t necessarily know that she can be thought of as having some intrinsic advantage in this area.


On balance, these factors look somewhat less favorable to Ms. Palin than they did a year ago. In particular, it should be alarming to her how quickly some figures in the Republican establishment have turned against her. It is probably not a coincidence that these attacks began to escalate shortly after this November’s elections, in which Republicans were perceived as having sacrificed several Senate seats, like in Delaware and Nevada, because of having nominated unelectable candidates.

Meanwhile — after an interim period in which she seemed to be playing the role of the happy warrior, endorsing and raising money for Republican candidates — Ms. Palin recently seems to have become less selective about the arguments that she is engaging in. Her choice to attack Ms. Obama’s anti-obesity initiatives, for instance, suggests that she is either not listening to advice or that her advisers are not highly competent. Instead, she should be erring on the side of turning the other cheek: one thing that has generally been true is that presidential candidates who project a sunnier, more optimistic disposition tend to outlast those that come across as angrier. This may be especially important for Ms. Palin, who is always a lightning-rod for criticism; she doesn’t need to instigate any conflicts that she isn’t already engaged in.

Still, Ms. Palin has some unique strengths, like her ability to use new media to attract the political world’s attention virtually at her whim. It remains conceivable, also, that the attacks that Ms. Palin will receive from members of the Republican establishment — and those which she will eventually begin to receive from other Republican presidential contenders — could be turned to her advantage if she manages them in the right way, considering the anti-establishment mood in some corners of the party.

In the near term, I would look toward two things. First, what is being said about Ms. Palin on conservative blogs, on conservative talk radio, and on Fox News? These reflect the middle ground between elite and popular opinion and may provide a leading indicator — perhaps more so than polls — about how much the elite’s criticisms of Ms. Palin, and their concerns about her electability, are penetrating into the general public.

Second, I would look toward whom Ms. Palin is hiring as her support staff. A presidential campaign is a huge endeavor, comparable to a medium-sized business. Perhaps, because of her facility in commanding attention, Ms. Palin requires less assistance than a typical candidate might. Perhaps, because she sometimes seems to have an impatience for details and has not run for president before, she requires more. But all presidential candidates need some help: those candidates, like the Republican Fred Thompson, who have become too enamored with the notion of running a “viral”, nontraditional campaign from the confines of their living rooms have usually failed miserably. Is she hiring good pollsters, media strategists, fundraisers, consultants, logisticians, and advertising gurus? If so, she may still be as likely as anyone to prevail from a large, but fairly weak, Republican field. If not, her campaign, if she decides to run one, is liable to be a bust.

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