Sarah Palin talks a lot about the tea party.
On Fox News last week, she said, "I find inspiration in tea party patriots [and] those with common sense who aren't playing a lot of games."
She could be considered the tea party's godmother. With her Sarah PAC
and support for 2010 tea party candidates
, Palin has generated a lot of good will, not to mention publicity, for a movement that began only two years ago. She also isn't afraid to attack popular Republicans such as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie
Further proof that Palin isn't always a GOP team player: She is skipping the first GOP primary debate on May 2 to give a keynote address, "Tribute to the Troops with Sarah Palin,
" at Colorado Christian University in Lakewood, Colo. Some take this as a sure sign, along with her tanking poll numbers in key places like Iowa, that Palin will not seek the White House in 2012.
Could Palin, ever the rogue, be concocting a different plan?
What if Palin is building a grassroots army of patriots to help her undertake this mission? Palin, unlike any failed vice presidential candidate before her, has taken an opportunity and spun it into a gold mine
. But to remain relevant in a crowded 2012 field of attention-seeking veteran politicians, Palin may have to make an unconventional move.
Although third-party candidates seldom win in America's two-party system, they can certainly rain on political parades. At the same time, they can help down-ballot candidates by getting voters to the polls who might otherwise stay at home.
Palin certainly has many of the qualities of a third-party candidate – charismatic and passionate, with a status as an outsider intent on storming the barricades of the establishment.
Consider previous candidates with engaging and controversial personalities who attempted to carve their own path to the Oval Office.
Larger-than-life Theodore Roosevelt ran on his Bull Moose Party ticket in 1912. He won 27.4 percent of the popular vote and carried six states, totaling 88 electoral votes. Roosevelt's candidacy split the Republican vote, and Democrat Woodrow Wilson won the election.
In 1948, Strom Thurmond ran as a Dixiecrat segregationist, a major draw in Southern states. Former Democratic governor George Wallace of Alabama ran in 1968 on the American Independent Party line. He remains the only third-party candidate since 1948 to win a state.
didn't face just Jimmy Carter. He also had to run against John Anderson, who had run in the crowded Republican primary. When it looked certain that Reagan would win, Anderson jumped to an independent candidacy. He received support from Rockefeller Republicans, author Gore Vidal, television sitcom creator Norman Lear and even the editors of "The New Republic."
One of the most prominent third-party candidates, perhaps, is Ross Perot. With his charts and nasal voice, he became a household name and the star of many "Saturday Night Live" skits,
with Dana Carvey playing Perot. The billionaire Texan threw a wrench into George H.W. Bush's re-election bid against Bill Clinton. He finished second in two states – Utah, ahead of Clinton, and Maine, ahead of Bush. Perot won 18.9 percent of the popular vote but no electoral votes.
He gave it another shot in 1996, but with lesser impact, on the Reform Party ticket. He garnered 8 percent of the popular vote.
Ralph Nader has run four times for president – twice as a Green Party candidate in 1996 and 2000 and twice as an independent, in 2004 and 2008.
For Palin to run as a tea party candidate, it would require money and keen organization. To become a legitimate third party, as opposed to its current status as a movement, the tea party would face a series of steep obstacles it likely could not scale by 2012.
For example, each state has its own ballot-access laws. Some states simply require a filing fee, but others have complex petition-gathering requirements for a party to become established, purposely aimed at keeping third parties off the ballot and protecting the elevated status of the major parties.
And the tea party isn't showing any effort to become established.
That's because the Republicans have figured out, for now, how to please the tea party.
"The tea party potentially forming a third-party movement would happen if they become completely disgusted with the Republicans," said Dr. Jim Broussard, professor of history at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pa."That doesn't seem likely now. Both in Washington and at the state level, most Republicans have figured out what people sent them to do."
But what if the 2012 Republican nominee, maybe Mitt Romney
or outgoing China ambassador Jon Huntsman
, isn't a tea party darling? Palin could emerge as the conservative populist alternative. Her best bet then would be to align with an established third party such as the Reform Party, like Pat Buchanan did in 2000, or run as an independent.
One downside of running as an independent? Absolutely no structure to rely on for support. But Palin already has a built-in voter, and fan, base. She has more than 2.7 million Facebook fans
and 439,000 Twitter followers
. She raises millions through her PAC, and gets massive media coverage from one tweet. She would likely have no problem covering the filing fees to get on the ballots in various states. Palin could use her social media tentacles
to gather signatures on petitions in states that require such.
Politico has reported that she could set up a presidential base in Arizona
. That might be the perfect spot to launch an independent bid. The tea party recently held a summit in the state
, which Palin did not attend but endorsed. It's also the state where Barry Goldwater revamped the modern-day conservative movement in the 1960s. Palin, in turn, could revolutionize the status of the independent candidate in Sen. John McCain's back yard without playing by the Iowa and New Hampshire game.
Matthew Kerbel, professor of political science at Villanova University, said, "Her history suggests she would relish the opportunity to run without having to do the heavy lifting of campaigning in Iowa and New Hampshire, and she would certainly want her supporters to come to her and demand that she run."
Then again, Kerbel says, "She may be the first candidate in history to run for president in order to preserve their place as a pop culture figure."