Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Pundits Are Wrong: Palin’s Got the Best Shot

by Lara Brown PhD

Poring over the head-to-head match-ups looking for a divining rod for the election, most professional political pundits have declared that Romney is the “electable” Republican candidate.

What these analysts fail to acknowledge as they debate the tautological concept of “electability” (only by being elected can one be shown to be electable) is that the presidential contest will look completely different – different levels of turnout, different states in play, different kinds of media coverage – depending on which candidate wins the Republican nomination.

And the reality is this: If sexism doesn’t derail her candidacy (and given that more Americans still prefer a male boss to a female boss, this possibility should not be lightly dismissed), Sarah Palin has the best chance of winning – not just the nomination, but also the general election.

To understand why, one must start with Obama’s standing as an incumbent president seeking a second term for his party. James Campbell found that since 1868 more than “two-thirds of the twenty-two incumbents seeking reelection were reelected…[and] more than two-thirds of in-party candidates seeking a second term for their party were successful” (pgs. 104-106). Leaving aside the economy, Obama is heavily favored to win.

The poor economic conditions do complicate matters. As Campbell also showed, since 1948 “only one of the six in-party candidates (Bill Clinton in 1996) with third year economic growth rates [measured by GDP in constant dollars] below 3 percent entered the campaign ahead in the polls” (pgs. 137-139). Given that the annual estimate for GDP in 2011 now stands at 2.5 percent, it is no surprise that Obama is down in the polls. Still, this does not mean he’ll lose. Only Carter managed that feat (Bush Sr. was seeking his party’s fourth term).

Incumbent presidential elections turn on turnout, not persuasion. Voters – including Independents – decide long before they cast their ballot whether they believe the president deserves a second term. Recall that in the 2004 (the last incumbent reelection campaign), the polls all summer long revealed that only about 7 percent of likely voters were undecided. This was not the case in 2008 (the number of undecided voters did not shrink to single digits until after the bottom fell out of the economy in September) because it was an “open seat” election where voters – especially Independents – wrestle more with their preferred candidate.

Because the 2012 election will be about turnout, the Republicans need to foster high levels of voter enthusiasm and engagement. If they do not, then Obama will likely be reelected. Recall that Obama pulled over 8.5 million more votes than McCain in 2008, meaning he can lose five or six million votes and still win, if the GOP selects as un-exciting a candidate as McCain was.

The GOP needs conflict and competition – not comity and civility. They need a war, not a border skirmish. The GOP needs to inject as much uncertainty into the race as possible by picking an electrifying candidate and putting more states in play. They also need someone whose message is not so extreme that they actually depress votes among those Republican-leaning Independents.

They need Palin. She is adored by those aligned with the Tea Party. She brings out crowds like no one except Obama. Unlike Perry, she holds some policy positions with wide appeal (only surprising to those in the mainstream media who failed to take note of her political career and track record in Alaska). She is running in third and she has yet to even announce.

Palin is also the embodiment of what my work (Jockeying for the American Presidency) found successful aspirants are in the Modern Party Era: “Those…perceived by their fellow partisans as charismatic leaders with strong ideological visions and as outsiders who would shake up Washington’s ‘insider’ (read: broken and corrupt) culture” (pg.220).

Since 2008, Palin has helped remake the Republican Party. Now it’s time for the GOP to wake up and realize that she’s the only one positioned to take them to White House this cycle.

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