Former Alaskan governor Sarah Palin is one of the most influential Republican figures today. Her “mamma-grizzly” endorsements have won a surprising number of victories, and much of the Republican base holds admiration for her. It is almost natural, then, that many pundits consider her as a front-runner or strong candidate for the 2012 Republican nomination.
Democrats like this. They salivate at the prospect of a Palin candidacy, believing that her unpopularity with non-Republicans will enable any standard-fare Democratic candidate to crush her in a presidential election. This belief is probably true; it would take a remarkable set of circumstances for Ms. Palin to win a general election against Mr. Obama.
But Republicans know just as well as Democrats do that Ms. Palin could not win a general election. That is why they will never nominate former governor Sarah Palin for president, no matter how popular she is amongst the Republican base.
American voters are incredibly brutal when it comes to the test of viability. If voters do not think that a candidate has a chance of winning, they will abandon that candidate in the blink of an eye. A vote for a candidate they like but who cannot win, the logic goes, is effectively a vote for a candidate they really dislike and who stands a strong chance of winning. Better to vote for somebody who stands a chance of defeating the candidate they really dislike.
This problem has bedeviled political campaigns throughout American history. In the 2008 presidential primaries, victims included John Edwards and Bill Richardson on the Democratic side, and Mike Huckabee and Rudy Giuliani on the Republican side. It is a problem that faces every third-party candidacy in the United States – and precious few of them overcome it.
It is also something that will curse Ms. Palin if she ever runs in the Republican primary. Ms. Palin cannot possibly win in the general election, her opponents will charge, so a vote for her is effectively a vote for President Barack Obama. There is nothing Ms. Palin can really say to this, because it is true. While Republicans might personally like Ms. Palin, they will not vote for her. She might be polling well right now, but that support is ephemeral. It will melt away as quickly as Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s did in 2008.
All in all, this is probably a good thing. There is always the chance, of course, that Ms. Palin could actually get elected if nominated. This could happen, for instance, if unemployment is at double-digits in 2012. And Sarah Palin, for all her political celebrity, would probably not make a very good president.