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The 800-Pound Mama Grizzly Problem

In last week’s blog post  on Tim Pawlenty, we noted that Mr. Pawlenty’s Google search traffic — which may be a reasonably good proxy for how much interest the candidate generates among the public at large — somewhat lags behind that of several other potential Republican contenders, such as that of  Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey.

These differences are small, however, as compared with the gap between Mr. Pawlenty and Sarah Palin. And the same goes for every other Republican candidate:

Ms. Palin’s search traffic, since the start of 2010, is roughly 16 times that of Mitt Romney, 14 times that of Newt Gingrich, 38 times that of Mike Huckabee, and 87 times that of Mr. Pawlenty. (It is about six times greater than these other four candidates combined.)

Ms. Palin, in fact, draws almost as much search traffic worldwide as the man she would face if she wins the Republican nomination: Barack Obama. And her name is searched for about 30 percent more often than the president’s among Google users in the United States.

Some members of Ms. Palin’s family also draw as much attention has the other presidential contenders. Todd Palin, her husband, gets about as much search traffic as Mr. Pawlenty. Bristol Palin, her daughter (and a finalist on “Dancing With the Stars”), gets several times more than any of them (as does her former boyfriend, Levi Johnston).

Mentions of the candidates in media outlets tracked by Google News have been nearly as asymmetrical. Sarah Palin’s name has been mentioned in about 20,300 articles since the start of the year, according to Google News, versus 3,640 for Mr. Romney, 3,280 for Mr. Gingrich, 2,980 for Mr. Pawlenty, and 1,870 for Mr. Huckabee. The ratio of candidate mentions in The Times since the beginning of 2010 has largely followed the same pattern: Ms. Palin’s name has been mentioned in 870 stories, against 540 for the other four candidates combined.

All of this poses a dilemma for the other potential Republican contenders. If and when Ms. Palin declares her candidacy for the White House, it could consume much of the media oxygen literally for months. For that matter, if Ms. Palin declines to run for office, it could also be a huge story. And, of course, until her mind is made up, there will be plenty of articles that attempt to anticipate Ms. Palin’s decision.

Does a candidate like Mr. Pawlenty, who seems likely to run for president, officially declare his candidacy now, in order to get out in front of Ms. Palin? Or does he wait, hoping that some sort of Palin fatigue sets in? (It could be a long wait, since Ms. Palin, because of her star power, has no incentive to announce her intentions especially early.)

If Ms. Palin runs, there is probably some value to the candidate who positions himself as the “anti-Palin,” particularly since many Republicans have trepidations about how well Ms. Palin might fare in a general election against President Obama. But if she does not run, any attacks on her might seem gratuitous and could be counterproductive.

Ms. Palin may not be the front-runner in a traditional sense (although it’s not clear that any of the other candidates are either). But she literally commands as much of the public’s attention as the president of the United States, and the strategy for the other candidates will have to revolve around her to some significant degree. In fact, since it is uncertain whether she will run or not, they will effectively have to develop two separate sets of strategies, one contingent upon the assumption that she will enter the race and the other on the bet that she won’t.

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