"What will Sarah do?" has been a question on the minds of many in the run-up to the Republican primary season next year. Definitively figuring out the answer to this question is a fool's game, however, because Sarah Palin continually shows the ability to surprise the punditocracy, the public, and the Republican establishment. Only Palin herself is ever confident of knowing what Sarah will do next, in other words.
But that certainly doesn't preclude the rest of us from having fun trying to figure her out. Palin has stated that she will (finally!) announce whether or not she's going to jump into the Republican primary race by the end of this month. Expectations were high that she might just announce her intentions a week ago, at an appearance at a Tea Party event in Iowa. Once again, Palin declined to do so.
Palin's got three options, in essence. Number one, throw her hat in the ring and vie for the Republican presidential nomination against the field. Number two, announce it's been a big tease all along, and she won't be running -- and, likely, that she's going to hold off endorsing any candidate "for now," in a naked effort to keep her teasing of the media going strong for months to come. But there is a third option she might opt for, which seems (upon examination) to have a lot of potential upsides for Palin, and relatively few downsides: running as a third-party candidate.
Some might dismiss this as wishful Lefty thinking. To be honest, it would indeed be good news for Democrats if Palin decides to make a third-party bid. The prospect of splitting the Righty vote in the general election might just guarantee a second term for President Barack Obama. Which would be a downside not only for the Republican Party, but also for Palin herself, since she would likely be treated as a pariah from then on by a big segment of the Republican base (much as Ralph Nader is now seen by many Democrats).
But, putting all that aside, let's examine the situation from Palin's point of view. Assume, for the sake of argument, that Palin is intent on running for president (if you don't make this assumption, then the rest of the argument -- and the rest of this column -- becomes irrelevant). She's got two paths to take to win the White House -- run as a Republican, or run as some sort of Independent.
If she runs as a Republican, she must win not one but two elections -- the primaries and the general. This means not only taking on Romney, Perry, and all the rest, but it also means participating in the Republican nomination contest. She'd be expected to debate, in other words. She'd be required to stand on a stage with a pack of other Republicans, and compete on the level of answering questions from moderators. Running as an Independent would avoid all of that. The only debate stage she'd expect to appear on would be one with Barack Obama and a single Republican, next fall. Running as an Independent would mean her name would move straight to the general election battle -- with no chance her candidacy would be derailed early next year.
The biggest hurdle to running independently is getting your name on all the state ballots, though. It takes a lot of time, a lot of money, and a lot of signature-gathering efforts to do so. Each state has their own arcane election laws, many of them heavily slanted towards protecting the dominance of the major two American political parties. Which makes this a big hurdle indeed. Palin could tackle this in one of three ways, however. She could attempt to convince an already-existing third-party to nominate her (the Libertarian Party springs immediately to mind). She could rouse her supporters to jump through all the hoops of getting her name on the ballot (on the "Sarah For President Party" or whatever she decides to call it), and hope she gets onto at least 40 or 45 state ballots, at a minimum. Palin could also use her army of supporters to make a bid to muscle in on one of the third-party organizations that are currently trying to get their nascent parties on the ballot (the one which is attempting to nominate a candidate via internet voting would likely be the Palinistas first target to co-opt). The first and last of these choices seems the more likely for Palin to attempt, because either would save her time and money.
Running as an Independent would seem -- to most political commentators and Washington establishmentarians -- as a huge mistake for Palin. This is yet another upside, seen from the point of view of Palin herself. She can't stand the pundits and the insiders, remember. She isn't afraid of bluntly letting them know this, either. Confounding these two inside-the-Beltway groups would be a source of continuing delight for Palin. She would revel in the opportunity to play the cat among the pigeons, once again. Defyin' the lamestream media, and defyin' the Washington bigwigs would be lotsa fun, oh, you betcha!
Seriously, though, so far such defiance has paid off enormously for Palin. She can't utter a word or a Tweet without reams of articles being written to decrypt what Sarah's thinking, and what she'll do next. This article you're reading right now is proof enough of this fact, although there is plenty of other proof out there for the media's fascination with all things Sarah. If Palin ran as an Independent, this would virtually assure that this media obsession would continue for another 14 months. To say nothing of the consternation it would cause over at Republican Party headquarters. It's pretty easy to picture the eventual Republican presidential nominee offering Sarah just about anything to convince her to end her campaign and come back to the party fold. If the concept of "President Perry" causes Lefties to have nightmares, imagine what "Secretary of [fill in the blank] Palin" would add to the mix? Palin's third-party candidacy would give her enormous leverage over the Republican Party establishment, which again can only be seen as an upside from Palin's point of view.
What got me thinking about the possibility that Palin may "go rogue" with a third-party campaign is the timing. The window of opportunity for Palin to jump in the Republican primary race -- and still have a viable chance of winning -- is creaking shut. It has not yet closed entirely, though. If Palin is truly thinking about running in the GOP primaries, she could even be seen later as one smart cookie for waiting so long. Think about it -- Palin's main rivalry for the Republican "I'm not Mitt Romney" candidate slot has evolved while she's been playing coy. Tim Pawlenty and Jon Huntsman were anointed "serious candidates" by the punditocracy early in the race. At this point, though, Pawlenty has already dropped out and Huntsman is simply not taken seriously as a candidate by anyone outside of your average Washington cocktail party. From the Pawlenty and Huntsman period, the competition then developed into a race between the other two major Tea Party candidates -- Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry. Bachmann had her moment in the sun, but is now fading fast in the polling. She may turn out to have been a one-trick pony (although there's still a chance for her to stage a comeback, admittedly). Meanwhile, Rick Perry's on the ascent in a big way.
Palin may, however, be playing the same waiting game with Perry that she successfully seems to have used on Bachmann. Rick Perry's rise in the polling could be followed by a dive, if he says something so outside the pale that not just average Americans recoil, but Republican base voters as well. He could flame out, in other words. If he does so in the next few weeks (which will have lots of chances for him to do so, with a heavy debate schedule), Palin could capitalize on a Perry gaffe by quickly jumping in the Republican race and stealing his thunder. With both Perry and Bachmann exposed as flawed to the Republican electorate, Palin would be in excellent shape to instantly become the main "I'm not Romney" candidate out there. At this point in time, Palin is already regularly out-polling Bachmann with Republican primary voters -- without even getting into the race (Palin seems to be picking up a lot of Bachmann's former support, in fact). If Perry took a hard fall, Palin could easily move up from the number three slot to number two (or even to frontrunner status).
But that's all assuming Perry has a meltdown. He's already survived one debate without saying anything that freaked out the Republican base (at least, in the scanty polling done since this debate -- time will tell if his Social Security comments eventually do his standing in the polls some harm). He's a good campaigner, say all the Texas folks who have watched his career so far -- so Perry simply can't be counted out in any way. He is, after all, the current frontrunner.
If Perry continues his strong showing (and Romney continues his slide in the polls), Palin may decide to sit out the Republican race. Battling against a fellow Tea Partier wouldn't be nearly as much fun as taking on Romney in a head-to-head matchup. If Palin ran as an Independent, she could avoid having to take on Perry until much later, assuming Perry wins the GOP nomination. If the 2012 race shaped up as "Perry v. Palin v. Obama," then Perry and Palin would spend much more energy trying to outdo the other's attacks on Obama than on attacking each other.
Of course, the path to actually winning the White House has almost never been that of a third-party candidacy. The Electoral College is set up to avoid this sort of thing, after all. Ross Perot got one out of every five votes cast in 1992, and he got precisely zero electoral votes. Palin has got to be aware of this. The real question is whether she would care or not. Which gets into the question of reading her mind -- something nobody's ever been very successful at doing (myself included, to be completely fair). Would Sarah Palin elect to go down in a (self-perceived) blaze of glory in 2012, or will she choose to take the more-standard route of vying for the Republican nomination? Will she get in at all, or has the past few months (years?) been nothing more than a monstrous tease? Will she "go rogue" on the Republican Party, the punditocracy, and the entire election? Or is this all some sort of late-summer Liberal fantasy my brain has dreamed up?
In other words, we're right back to where we started: What will Sarah do? One way or another, we should all know by the end of this month.
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