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How Palin Could Win the 2012 GOP Nomination

5 years ago
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Undoubtedly at this very moment, two saffron-robed monks in a monastery north of Katmandu are earnestly discussing Sarah Palin's presidential prospects. In the favelas of Rio, the normally fierce arguments about the World Cup and the 2016 Olympics are surely taking a back seat to high-decibel debates over the pre-publication excerpts from Going Rogue.

This is Palin time whether you believe that she is "The Divine Sarah" (as Sarah Bernhardt was once known) or the 21st century version of Barry Goldwater who will lead the Republican Party into the abyss. True believers stress her megawatt incandescence and her Facebook leadership of the conservative tea-party movement at time when all other Republicans seem pallid. Skeptics scoff at the hoopla and argue that the Republican establishment would never nominate someone who, according to a recent CNN/Opinion Research poll, 71 percent of voters describe as "not qualified to be president."

More than two years before the 2012 Iowa caucuses, presidential speculation should come with a soothsayer's money-back guarantee. But what all the discussions of Palin's future miss is the way that Republican Party rules are made-to-order for a well-funded insurgent named Sarah to sweep the primaries before anyone figures out how to stop her. If Palin can maintain, say, 35-percent support in a multi-candidate presidential field, then she is the odds-on favorite for the GOP nomination.

The secret of Palin's presidential potential is the Republican Party's affection for winner-take-all primaries. According to my friend Elaine Kamarck's invaluable new book, Primary Politics, 43 percent of the 2008 Republican delegates were selected in primaries where the winner corralled all the delegates by winning a state or congressional district. As a result of the Republicans' to-the-victor-go-the-spoils method of picking convention delegates, Mike Huckabee finished second in 16 states and won a paltry 74 delegates for his trouble.

In the name of fairness, the Democrats have banned such winner-take-all primaries, which is why the nomination fight between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton dragged into June. The Democratic Party's method of proportional representation meant that neither candidate could score a game-ending victory until all the primaries ended.

In contrast, the Republicans have long been more concerned with avoiding a lengthy and divisive nomination fight than in designing a philosophically pure system of allocating delegates.

Here is why this kind of arcane detail may well smooth Palin's path to the 2012 nomination. While nothing is certain this far out, Palin seems perfectly positioned to appeal to the conservative party activists who turn out for the opening-gun Iowa caucuses. Moderate New Hampshire, of course, is apt to be a daunting challenge for Palin.

Next stop on the traditional GOP calendar is the firewall South Carolina primary where, as Kamarck writes, "candidates such as Pat Buchanan and Pat Robertson (who were seen as too radical to win a general election)...could be stopped early on."

But Palin would not be a lucky fringe candidate who won a caucus or two; she would be a universally known charismatic figure who could beat the party establishment in this conservative state.

In 2008, after South Carolina came a series of winner-take-all primaries in which John McCain rolled up a lopsided delegate lead. McCain won all of Florida's delegates even though he received just 36 percent of the primary vote. In California, where delegates were allocated by congressional districts, McCain won 158 delegates with 42 percent of the popular vote. Mitt Romney received 34 percent of the California vote but was awarded just 12 delegates. In Illinois, Romney won exactly 3 delegates despite his 29-percent share of the primary vote. Because of similar primary rules, McCain won every single delegate in the early February contests in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Missouri and Virginia.

If Palin launches a 2012 race – and survives the South Carolina primary with her aura intact – she could theoretically sweep the winner-take-all states without ever winning a majority anywhere. The Republican establishment (the congressional leadership, the governors, the major donors and national consultants) could all agree that Palin would be an electoral disaster against Obama in November and still be powerless to halt her juggernaut.

The best way to stop Sarah would be for GOP insiders to rally quickly around a single anti-Palin candidate. But such cabals rarely work in politics because there are too many egos involved. Would, say, Romney be so panicked about Palin that he would prematurely abandon his presidential ambitions to support a potentially more winnable candidate like maybe Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty? Not bloody likely. For that matter, would populist Huckabee drop out in favor of a big-business Republican like Romney to prevent Palin mania? Yeah, sure.

Although the party rules are entirely different than in 1964 when Goldwater permanently decimated the Eastern liberal Republican Party, the guiding principle is the same. A well-known candidate with a passionate following who organizes early can win the nomination even if a large swath of the party believes that he or she is ill-equipped to be entrusted with the nation's nuclear codes.

Since the Republicans allow winner-take-all primaries but do not mandate them, it will be intriguing if major states decide to change their rules about how they will award convention delegates in 2012. Jiggering with the primaries might be the first manifestation of a top-down Stop Palin movement. Otherwise, winner-take-all Republican primaries may speed the nomination of the most polarizing presidential nominee since the Democrats picked George McGovern in 1972.

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