Let us be clear: I believe the choice by John McCain of Sarah Palin as his running mate was the worst since George McGovern went with Tom Eagleton. (A careful reading of both histories suggests the amount of vetting was similar.) There was no path from August to November that didn’t include a large number of debacles inherent in such a choice—and the McCain campaign, to its credit, fell into every one of them.
But just as obvious is this fact: Sarah Palin is easily the frontrunner for the 2012 Republican nomination. In fact, it’s hard to imagine any of the current names in Republican presidential politics taking it from her—and Republicans normally go with whoever is next in line.
Let’s start with: why Palin? The easiest way to determine this is to ask: what does it take to earn a party nomination? Ideally, you are loved by the group making up the largest portion of the party’s voters. If you are disliked, it is by a group within the party too small to matter. Name ID and fundraising can go a long way towards clearing the early field. And passionate supporters as ground troops can help you close the deal.
Sarah Palin qualifies on every one of these points. And her potential opponents don’t come close.
Let’s look at the huge lead she already has. A Rasmussen Reports poll from November 5, 2008 had Sarah Palin as the choice of 64 percent of Republicans, with Mike Huckabee at 12 percent, Mitt Romney at 11 percent. More impressive, however, are the supplementary numbers. Palin has a favorability rating of 91% among Republicans—91%! Even better for a primary, 65% gave her the most positive “Very Favorable” rating. Even John McCain’s pollster Bill McInturff, in a retrospective on the election, called Palin “the most popular Republican in the country right now.”
And to those who believe it is absolutely clear that Palin cost McCain a shot of the election—you are likely not a Republican. 69% believe Palin helped, not hurt McCain in 2008. And Senator Saxby Chambliss credits Palin with assuring his re-election.
“When she walks in a room, folks just explode… And they really did pack the house everywhere we went,” Chambliss said following his runoff win on December 2.
Palin is loved by social conservatives, who still make up a large portion of the foot soldiers within the GOP. How important is this? Well, take Iowa, for example, the very first primary. Born-Again or Evangelical Christians alone, who are not the sum total of social conservative GOP but a large portion, were 60% of the 2008 Iowa vote, according to a CNN entrance poll. (That’s without Palin to lure them to the polls.) That number drops to 23 percent in New Hampshire—still, a large number, particularly if they line up behind a candidate and vote as a bloc—but that number jumps back to 39 percent in Michigan, 39 percent in Florida, and 60 percent in South Carolina.
So the question becomes: will anyone else in the race seriously threaten Palin for these voters? Well, we have a pretty good handle on how enthusiastically Born-Again/Evangelicals respond to Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee from 2008. In the case of Romney, they don’t. In the case of Huckabee, they do when the alternative is Romney or John McCain. Still, even in Iowa, where McCain did little campaigning, Huckabee won 46 percent of the evangelical vote—hardly a landslide.
And ironically, while Huckabee showed more strengths among Palin’s 2012 base electorally, he’s already displayed that, even when competing against essentially Sam Brownback for funds, he simply can’t credibly raise money for a national campaign. Huckabee even won Iowa—still, he didn’t have enough money to staff most other states beyond a skeletal operation.
Romney, meanwhile, has tons of his own money—and it still wasn’t enough in a GOP race against the underfunded Huckabee and the winner, McCain, who was not trusted by a large portion of his own party.
And Sarah Palin? There’s so much money ready to move to Palin, they spent $2 million on an ad just to thank her for running over Thanksgiving! It is hard to quantify the level of fundraising she’ll be capable of, since McCain’s choosing public financing rendered her talents in this area largely moot.
But amusingly enough, Palin can clearly build on the Obama model—with so many rank-and-file Republicans behind her, the small donors through the internet can and will make Sarah Palin able to stand toe-to-toe with Mitt Romney, financially. And unlike Romney, Republicans really like Sarah Palin. Just 45 percent of Republicans rank Romney “Very Favorable”, and 16 percent have an unfavorable opinion of him.
The final advantage Sarah Palin has is the weakness of her opposition. Romney had a clear opening in 2008, spent like crazy, and couldn’t beat back Huckabee or McCain. Huckabee has no ability to raise money, and his base merely likes him, but loves Sarah Palin—she crowds him out of the field. Who else could it be? Bobby Jindal is unknown and already said he isn’t running. John McCain will be 76. What moderate (with a ridiculously small political base) will take her on—the corpse of Nelson Rockefeller?
A nationally unknown governor like Mitch Daniels of Indiana wouldn’t be a bad choice from a general election perspective—but does he strike anyone as someone who will catch fire? (And remember: Sarah Palin’s been through a national campaign, and a large majority of Republicans believe she HELPED John McCain).
In other words, she’s got experience, too.
So in politics, a month in an eternity–much can happen. Because of her newness to the national stage, it is possible some scandal will knock her out of the running between now and then. But short of that, it is hard to see what set of political circumstances can deny Sarah Palin the 2012 GOP nod.
Lord knows I’d make a terrible Republican advisor. For one thing, instead of hating minorities, I am one. But I have to believe that if I had been among their ranks on election night, I would have taken a certain comfort in knowing that through the bloodletting that had occurred, very little really had been sacrificed. In a losing affair to an African American candidate, the Republicans had used up an old man with a goiter bigger than his face and a woman who scores a perfect eleventy on the Bush equivalency test.
When the smoke cleared on that Wednesday morning, McCain had already repeated the signature move of his career, getting trounced by the opposition and subsequently pledging his undying commitment to the winning team. He may be the world’s greatest case history for a study in post-traumatic Stockholm Syndrome, an effusive fondness that seems to strikes him any time he suffers a severe ass-whoopin’.
The illusion, of course, is that the Republicans have been defeated and that this long bleak stretch is over. But the fractious finger-pointing that emerged almost immediately between the McCain camp and supporters of the fresh-faced newcomer to the national scene, Sarah Palin, suggests that calculations are well underway for a big return in 2012. But what will the old, saggy white face of the Republican Party look like then?
Within hours of McCain’s defeat, there became a sharp and bitter divide between the running mates on exactly which of them had lost the unwinnable election. Of course, McCain had said it best during one of his submissive debate appearances earlier in the month, where he noted that Obama seemed mostly to be running against President Bush. Quite so, and the strategy was, to say the least, accurate and successful.
But Palin’s impact on the election was more than tangible. It was the only bombshell unleashed by a stolid campaign run on Ovaltine and hate. In Palin, the curmudgeonly war veteran threw a hand grenade and it landed right next to him. She exploded into a cataclysm of ready-made Saturday Night Live punchlines and nailbiting moments of floundering discursive inefficacy. The evidence of republic cynicism and desperation was staggering. She was not the breakout figure of this election whose youth and charm will spare her the judgments retained for the Republican offenders of the last decade. Instead, she is a symbol of a party which has fallen out of sync with the majority of Americans. Republicans sensed the rancor between Obama and Clinton supporters, and failed to recognize it as a genuine and emotionally driven desire on the part of a united party to choose the candidate best suited to oust Bush.
Republicans missed the subtle tones of seething anger manifested against them, and instead viewed this as one of the many unfortunate realities since women got the right to vote. So they slapped a dress-suit on Dan Quayle and told him to talk like Fargo. The charm of which they speak in reference to Sarah Palin must surely be the same which, in Bush, is detectable only to those who sympathize with her ideology. And this is the wild card. Whether Sarah Palin is likely to be the next Republican presidential contender remains very much an open-ended question, with Obama’s performance under an intensely huge and stinking shitpile of responsibilities bearing the determinant impact on how the arch-conservative ideology will fare in the coming years.
Sure, some Republican voters have fond memories of Palin. She was so candidly incapable of answering questions. She was so clearly reading Karl Rove’s talking-points memos in the wrong order. But she was the sexy sparkplug that McCain so desperately needed. Honestly though, next to McCain, Abe Vigoda has sex appeal.
And whatever the revisionist thinking that has allowed Republicans to reflect positively on her impact in the election, an interesting poll on October 20th tells a story that would inevitably spell out doom for a Palin/?Stevens? ticket in 2012. A New York Times and CBS News poll tells that from September to the week prior to the election, her perceived negatives had gone from 29% to 41%, suggesting that the longer she is seen in the public light, the more critically Americans are able to assess a woman who picks her children’s names from Peterson’s Field Guide to Shit You Find on the Ground.
In an election that would cast her primarily in the role of evaluating Obama’s performance, she’d better have a hell of a lot to say. If he doesn’t give her the ammunition, she will stand on recognition alone. If her performance to this juncture is any indication, her fate will inevitably be to lose a primary and to recede deep into the footnote stack of history, overshadowed considerably by real public servants with real accomplishments like Barrack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Tina Fey. Truthfully though, I hope I’m wrong because now I have a taste for winning by a landslide, and I like it.