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Why Palin Will Run for President in 2012

As you may know, 538 co-captain Tom Schaller and I have made a couple of bets regarding whether Sarah Palin will run for and win the 2012 Republican nomination for the Presidency. I’ve got the Palin side of both wagers: even money that she’ll run for the Presidency, and the 3-1 odds that Tom has given me on her actually emerging with the nomination. The second wager is not conditional upon the first; I’m responsible for paying Tom provided that Palin does not become the GOP nominee, whether or not she runs for it.

Tom provides two pieces of evidence against Palin running for the nomination. The first is that 2012 is a year when an incumbent, Barack Obama, will almost certainly be running for re-election, and incumbents seats are much tougher to pick up than open ones. The second is that Palin’s polling has gone somewhat sour against her potential GOP rivals, which might deter her from entering.

For starters, I’d somewhat dispute Tom’s unspoken assumption that Palin is liable to be looking at this decision through such a narrowly rational prism. Was quitting the Alaska governorship — particularly in the sudden and disorganized way that Palin did it — a decision characteristic of someone who carefully ponders all the facts and circumstances before jumping to a conclusion? Not hardly. Palin is impulsive, impatient, ambitious, thrill-seeking: not the type of politician to prudently wait for a better moment.

But assuming that Palin is rational, and that her goal is to maximize her chance of someday becoming President (or at least winning the nomination), it’s not clear that 2012 is a worse bet for her than 2016. Yes, the GOP, as a whole, is likely to have a better shot at winning the Presidency in 2016 than in 2012. But Palin may also face stiffer competition within her own party in 2016. In part that’s precisely because non-incumbent races end to attract stronger candidates – witness, for instance, the poor quality of the Republican field in 1996 – and in part it’s because the present field of GOP rivals (Romney, et. al.) seems almost preternaturally weak. By 2016, there is more chance of a fresh face emerging, be it someone relatively new to the national scene like Bob McDonnell of Virginia, someone like Bobby Jindal who stumbled out of the gate but has a good chance to work out some of his kinks, or someone that none of us have even heard of yet.

Another motivator for Palin to run is that her opportunity cost is not very high. Having quit her governorship and apparently declining to challenge Lisa Murkowski for her Senate seat, Palin’s next opportunity to run for some sort of high-stature elected office wouldn’t come until 2014, when Mark Begich’s seat is up in the Senate. Is Palin, who already has a reputation as a quitter, likely to run for that seat, only to have to quit again if she wants to run for the Presidency in 2016? Not hardly.

Until she runs for office again, rather, Palin’s role is basically that of a celebrity on her own behalf, and a rabble-rouser on behalf of the GOP. Although each of those things can occupy a goodly amount of one’s time, the media is likely to tire of Palin if she’s not actually making news, and Palin herself may grow tired of not being the center of attention. Moreover, there’s not any evidence that laying low seems to help Palin’s standing with the public; on the contrary, her numbers seemed to have have declined a lot during the past several months, a period during which (until recently) she was not making much news.

The reason I suspect this may be the case is because Palin’s popularity seems to stem not from any particular attributes that she possesses as a candidate, but rather from the reactions that she seems to induce from other people. Only by being in the spotlight can Palin induce liberal pundits to say rude things about her, fellow candidates to behave awkwardly around her, etc. Only in this way can she be the martyr and the underdog, qualities that conceal some of her potential inadequacies. Oddly, the more attention Palin gets, the more of a Rorschach blot she becomes — which is good for a candidate who most people don’t think is qualified to be President on her own merits.

As for the polling, that’s something will look at in more depth tomorrow, when I consider Palin’s odds of actually winning the nomination. But even if one takes seriously polling conducted 2-3 years in advance of an election, Palin is running at the very worst in a solid second or third place, against candidates who themselves may or may not run for the White House. That’s hardly an impossible position. What were Chris Dodd’s odds of emerging with the Democratic nomination last year, in a field that was likely to include some combination of Hillary Clinton, Al Gore, and Barack Obama? What are Tim Pawlenty’s in 2012? (Hint: not very high.) The vast majority of candidates running for a Presidential nomination have done so facing substantially longer odds than Palin. And arguably, being incumbent senators or governors (insert crack about “actual responsibilities”), they’ve given up a lot more in order to do so. Palin has the means, motive, and opportunity to run for the Presidency in 2012, and I’d be surprised if she fails to do so.

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