07 October 2010

Iowa = Palin's kryptonite

We've written here recently that we don't consider Sarah Palin to be a serious contender for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination.

As Rudy Guiliani can attest, being competitive in either Iowa or New Hampshire is absolutely critical to one's ultimate success in a presidential campaign. In 2000, George W. Bush and Al Gore each won Iowa. In 2004, John Kerry -- at the time, considered a mid-tier contender -- finished a close second in Iowa in a crowded field and won in New Hampshire. In 2008, John McCain won big in New Hampshire, giving him a head of steam to cruise to victories in South Carolina and Florida. Barack Obama also won big in Iowa, and Hillary Clinton never quite seemed to fully recover after finishing a severely disappointing third in the caucuses. (The only reason a loss in Iowa didn't hurt McCain was because the Senior Senator -- an avowed opponent of ethanol subsidies and thus, an enemy of virtually the entire Iowa agricultural industry -- didn't even bother campaigning there.)

The bottom line is that there is no recent precedent for a candidate not winning in one of the first two states and going on to win a major party's nomination.

Sarah Palin will not be competitive in New Hampshire, period. New Hampshire voted for John McCain twice -- in 2000 and 2008 -- and the candidate who closest approximated Palin's place in the party in 2008 -- Mike Huckabee -- barely campaigned there, instead spending most of his time in the much more socially conservative South Carolina. New Hampshire voters are famously independent, a sort of pseduo-Tory mix of center-left social views and center-right economic views. They are revolted by tired, partisan cliches and instead demand face-to-face engagement. If there's a conservative Republican who can win in New Hampshire, it will likely be Tim Pawlenty or Mitch Daniels (should the latter choose to run). Of course, Mitt Romney will be competitive there, but calling him a "conservative Republican" is a stretch. Palin would be better-served following Huckabee's model by avoiding New Hampshire entirely and focusing on her much stronger chances in South Carolina.

So what about Iowa? Some have suggested that Palin's folksy shtick might play well there. Here's why they're wrong:

1. Like New Hampshire voters, Iowa voters demand engagement. In 2008, Barack Obama was a force on the ground, shoring up his already strong ground game with the powerful force of his personality. Palin, to the contrary, only is visible at highly scripted rallies, doesn't do interviews that aren't on Fox News and doesn't have a sufficient breadth of knowledge to engage with voters who have legitimate concerns. There is no precedent for someone of Palin's ilk to win in Iowa.

2. As we've noted before, Barack Obama was so successful in Iowa in large part due to his phenomenal ground game, a well-funded and excellently organized grassroots network of students, labor leaders, retirees and everyone in-between. While Romney and Pawlenty have quietly built apparatuses based on the Obama model, Palin has done nothing of the sort. The people who make comparisons between Obama in 2006-2008 and Palin at the present time miss the critical fact that Obama was able to gain such a massive head of steam not because he was some sort of cult hero, but rather because his GOTV operation was so sophisticated.

3. As a corollary to point #2, Palin is approaching her presidential run in a rather cavalier way. Instead of doing the hard work of lining up the traditional GOP heavy hitters and organizational gurus (as Romney and Pawlenty have done), Palin has instead spent her time touring the country and endorsing candidates like Joe Miller in Alaska, Carly Fiorina in California and Christine O'Donnell in Delaware. Her hope, of course, is that these individuals will reciprocate her support in kind in the 2012 primaries. Not only is she banking on these candidates to get elected, but she's also banking on their endorsements of her to be so massively popular that public opinion will swing in her favor. However, this is an idiotic way to build a presidential campaign, for no other reason than there is absolutely no evidence that, for instance, anyone in Iowa cares who Joe Miller is, or what he thinks.

4. Iowa voters already like Tim Pawlenty. Voters in the northern part of the state are especially familiar with the reasonable, salt-of-the-earth Sam's Club Republican governor of their neighbor to the north.

5. If candidates drop out before Iowa or shortly thereafter, there isn't a single Republican candidate who will endorse her. Palin will be an island in the campaign, much as Romney was in 2008. Unless and until Palin is the clear-cut frontrunner, there isn't a single other contender who will offer his support. Romney, Pawlenty, Daniels and Mike Pence will fall in line behind one of each other. Huckabee and Thune, likewise. Gingrich is admittedly a wild card, but he understands that his position as the intellectual poobah of the party will be shredded if he endorses Palin over, say, the uber-cerebral Pawlenty. And if Ron Paul is around, he'll keep swinging 'til the bitter end.

6. She's going to say something stupid. She always does.

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