HOWARD MEGDAL: The 2012 primaries are a long way off, but by any measure, Sarah Palin is the favorite right now to be the GOP standard-bearer in the next presidential election. GOP strategist Phil Musser, among many others, have come to this conclusion. I have felt this way since the fall of 2008, and nothing that has taken place since then has changed my mind.
When I evaluate presidential prospects for a nomination, I take several factors into account. I want to see that the person has a base of support-clearly, Sarah Palin has a strong set of GOP voters ready to support her. More specifically, I want to know the intensity level of her supporters; no one could have seen her stops on the book tour, with people waiting hours just to spend 15 seconds with her, and doubted that these are people who will turn out on a cold January Iowa night.
Next is determining whether the candidate can raise money. Usually, this is mostly a function of the enthusiasm, but in Palin’s case, there were some doubts that she could sufficiently organize to monetize that passion. But Palin raised $1.4 million in the second half of 2009, despite doing very little actual fundraising. She held no events, sent out very few e-mail solicitations. In other words, there is clearly a donor base she has already tapped into, and can continue to as the primary season draws closer.
Then, of course, there are the opponents. And while many of the potential candidates back in 2008 have dropped from the picture-you won’t see John Ensign or Mark Sanford in the race, and almost certainly not Bobby Jindal, either- the one 2008 candidate who is in the picture is Mitt Romney. Indeed, he managed to raise $2.1 million during the period of time Palin raised $1.4 million.
But money was always going to be Romney’s principal advantage in a 2012 race. It was his trump card in 2008, too. But let’s not forget- it wasn’t actually a trump card. Romney was too slick for GOP voters to swallow. They voted for Mike Huckabee in Iowa, and took John McCain, a candidate many of them barely tolerate, over Romney in the GOP battle as a whole.
In other words, facing a severely underfunded Huckabee and a poor candidate disliked by the GOP base in McCain, Romney was too inauthentic to come close to sealing the deal.
Now, in 2012, Romney will have the same financial edge, though Palin’s passion will likely dull that edge somewhat. But Romney now plans to run not as the liberal who faced Ted Kennedy in 1994, or the social conservative who ran in 2008, but as an economic conservative in 2012. It is yet another shift for a candidate facing Palin, whose entire appeal can be traced to her voters seeing her as authentic.
Those ready to dismiss Palin also point to the recent poll that revealed 71 percent of Americans don’t think Sarah Palin is qualified to be president. But notice that the number, among Republicans, hovers around 45 percent.
Back in August 2007, a Democratic candidate for president named Barack Obama had an unsolvable problem: only 44 percent of Democrats thought he could handle a foreign crisis. A majority of Democrats didn’t think, in other words, he was qualified to be president less than five months before the Iowa caucuses.
But passion won out. And while Sarah Palin is no Barack Obama, I think it is safe to say that Mitt Romney is no Hillary Clinton. There’s a long way to go, but as of right now, Palin is the nominee. And the first GOP debates will be here faster than you can wink.
CHRIS PUMMER: Mitt Romney has the steadiest political hands that will try to reach for the 2012 Republican nomination, which is why he’ll be the likely winner.
There’s no doubt Romney will raise more money than anyone else. Even those touting Palin as a potential money machine are beginning to cede that point. And the only potential candidate that looks like he could build a better organization is Mike Huckabee, and his decision to run or not looks very uncertain.
But as President Barack Obama’s popularity slides, the 2012 election looks more winnable for the GOP. That means the party is more likely to choose a credible candidate.
Palin is not a credible candidate. Her celebrity is her only strength, but the longer she’s been in the public eye, the less the public likes seeing her. Or if you prefer the most charitable view, Palin isn’t winning any new converts.
We’ve heard the excuses from Palin apologists; on disappointing fundraising (“She was busy governing Alaska!” followed by “She was busy writing a book!”; on organizing (“You don’t need a ground game with that many loyal Facebook friends!”); on being able to broaden her base of support (“It’s big enough to win a rump GOP primary!”); and even her startling lack of knowledge on any issue (“She’s giving them just what they need to hear!”).
All of the political pundits assuring us of a Palin coronation seem to be attributing qualities to the former half-term governor that she just doesn’t have.
While Palin has an informal group of advisers that seem to be withholding any good advice, Romney still has the political machine from his 2008 presidential bid intact.
While Palin was cashing a check for speaking to a group that’s on the fringe even for a GOP base, Romney is quietly traveling around the country on his own dime building on his base of support.
And while Palin jumped into the middle of a civil war in NY-23, endorsing a candidate who lost the campaign and a long-held seat for the Republican Party in the House of Representatives, Romney was a strong figure behind the election of Scott Brown to the Senate that shifted the balance of power in Washington and has the Democratic Party on its heels.
If financial and organizational advantages weren’t enough, the primary playing field probably also favors Romney.
Nate Silver recently took a look at how the primary might play out. Even with the voting schedule still undecided, Romney has the most clear-cut path to victory. Win in Iowa — which Romney almost did two years ago — and then in New Hampshire — where he was also a close second in 2008 — and he’ll be unstoppable. Just win New Hampshire and Romney can probably win a war of attrition.
This doesn’t mean we should start etching the word inevitable on Romney’s candidacy. A Huckabee bid certainly complicates things for him, especially since the former Arkansas governor could be favored to win Iowa and South Carolina again.
Should the field be winnowed down quickly, some of Romney’s disadvantages become more damaging.
Some Evangelicals will simply not be comfortable with a Mormon candidate. Some tea party purists won’t like a politician that advanced health care reform while governing Massachusetts.
But even if Romney can’t begin with a bang in Iowa, a crowded field of candidates probably also favors him. A marginal candidate like Rick Santorum won’t peel away as many social conservatives from his column (like he would Palin or Huckabee). Gary Johnson won’t relegate him further into also-ran status (Ron Paul).
And this time around Romney will have a stronger identity. He doesn’t have to try to be everything to everyone like in 2008. Instead Romney can let Tim Pawlenty do that while finishing third.
Having been there before counts for something. Romney’s already lost the game of musical chairs once. But having experienced it means he’s better-positioned to grab the last seat this time around.