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Why Sarah Palin won't run for president in 2012

Scott Woodham
Aaron Jansen illustration

It was only mentioned in passing a couple weeks ago, but astute Alaska Dispatch readers may have noticed (in a recent brief about a U.K. bookmaker planning to bring political betting to the United States) that there's already been casual betting in the Dispatch newsroom about whether or not Sarah Palin will declare a 2012 run for the GOP presidential nomination.

I've taken that bet. Maybe I’ll win, maybe not. Ultimately, I don’t care. It’s all in good fun, and doesn’t involve money. The stakes? If I lose, I have to read a book someone else will pick for me. I've had inklings that Palin's campaign for the White House has already been going on for some time now, an elaborate, grassroots balancing act in the gray areas of national campaign finance laws. But whatever; I'm game. So I took the bet.

The other half is my friend, colleague and fellow Palin-watcher Amanda Coyne. She proposed the bet to me a month or so ago after finding no other suckers. Amanda thinks Palin will declare a 2012 run for the White House; I disagree. So far, I’m winning. Palin is not currently a candidate and hasn’t made any moves that way, not even a head-fake. Yet still her supporters clamor on social media for her to run,  make feature films to advertise her, and organize themselves on her behalf -- all purportedly without coordination with Palin or her political action committee.

So then, lets get to it. There are all sorts of reasons I don't think Palin's going to run in 2012, but chief among them is that Fox News still hasn't suspended or cancelled her commentary contract. Earlier this summer, Fox backed out of its contracts with former Speaker of the U.S. House Newt Gingrich and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, both of whom had made obvious moves toward candidacy. The network said it did so out of concern that keeping them in its employ could run them afoul of federal broadcast regulations regarding “equal time” and political candidates.

Palin hasn't made any moves as explicit as Gingrich or Santorum’s, but she hasn't ruled them out, either. Palin's Fox contract is reportedly set to expire in 2012 (exactly when isn’t known, though), if Palin declares her intention to run before it expires, Fox News's parent company potentially faces election law hassles, especially after making such a transparent effort over other possible candidates. The network reportedly put the question to Fox commentator and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, and he provided them with a timetable for his decision. Then he stuck to it, in the end saying he wouldn’t be running.

Maybe Palin’s run is a foregone conclusion and the network was just laying the groundwork with those suspensions for a plausible deniability defense against FCC fines, but apparently Palin's employers agree with me that she’s not running. So Palin's Fox contract is the signal flare to me, and until I see it head skyward, I must conclude she's definitely not running in 2012, no matter what Palin’s Fox colleague Greta Van Susteren says.

Sarah Palin's running risks

That’s my main practical reason she won’t be running, but it’s tactical, not strategic.

Palin's ambition might be to run for president someday, but the worst thing that could happen for her future in elected politics (however she conceives it) is winning the 2012 GOP nomination. Her celebrity is so strong, her supporters so committed, and the current field of potentials appears so weak, crazy and/or uninspiring to most Republican voters, that she could very well win the nomination.

For that matter, my colleague Craig Medred and I could beat the entire country of Fiji at pond hockey.

Recent primary polls show Palin solidly in second place among Republicans and Republican-leaning primary voters, many of whom are still undecided -- despite the fact she is not officially running.

At this point people usually tell me that she hasn’t raised much money to start a run, and she’s not running because of that. It’s true, she hasn’t formed a presidential committee to solicit funds, and her SarahPAC money would be off limits in a declared run. But she wouldn’t need much money to run and win the nomination. If Palin actually entered the race, she could be carried onward by her legendarily passionate -- and thus cheap -- volunteers, using a fraction of the budget her opponents would have.

I find it hard to imagine people being so committed to one of the official Republican primary candidates that they’d stand in the August Iowa sun for ten hours waving a banner.

Despite how very passionate Palin's supporters are and how extensive her off-the-books, purportedly uncoordinated non-campaign network might be, I think she's playing the long game. And the long game doesn't include winning the 2012 GOP nomination then losing -- perhaps losing big -- in the general election. Because the stakes are so high, if Palin declares for the 2012 primaries, she will be running to lose them. If she does lose, she’ll at least finally have something concrete in common with Ronald Reagan.

Ronald Reagan lost the 1976 GOP nomination, then won it and then the presidency in 1980. But Reagan wasn’t nearly as polarizing a force among voters as Palin is, and he didn't stand the same chance of winning the Republican nomination in 1976 as Palin does in 2012. She’s by far the most recognizable, charismatic potential Republican candidate, and her supporters have far and away more zeal.

Because of her dismal -- and worsening -- nationwide public opinion scores,  winning the Republican primary would be a disaster for her future. She draws so much water with the GOP’s base that she could win the nomination without trying very hard. And that would be the end of her. Poll after poll nationwide shows that she would face an extremely difficult, if not impossible race against President Obama.

Polls over the last six months consistently show that essentially all registered and leaning Democrats would never consider voting for Palin as president. A majority of political independents say they’re not interested in voting for her either. Even a surprisingly large number of Republicans and leaning conservatives who say they support the former governor or view her favorably regularly say they think she isn’t ready to be president or lacks the experience one needs. And all those polls, including measures of her general favorability score, are getting worse for her 2012 general election prospects.

One Alaska poll recently indicated that even Palin's home state, a red-state slam-dunk most of the time, would likely go for President Obama if Palin were the Republican candidate. Not since the singer Jewel canceled a gig at the State Fair have Alaskans turned on one of their own with such conviction. Time is softening the state’s once-strong antipathy for Jewel, and even for Palin’s one-time nemesis former U.S. Sen. and Alaska Gov. Frank Murkowski, but statewide opinion on Palin looks like it has staying power. Though she still has many supporters in Alaska, her standing in the state’s broader electorate isn’t likely to recover from the hit it took during the 2008 election circus and her resulting resignation.

The last time Alaska voted for a Democratic presidential candidate was 1964, when it joined a huge number of other Americans in support of incumbent President Lyndon B. Johnson (who'd helped Alaska achieve statehood) against the Republican nominee, Sen. Barry Goldwater, R-Ariz. Goldwater ran on a far right platform similar in some ways to the one Palin has been standing on for the last couple of years. Johnson-Goldwater ended up being one of the largest landslides in presidential election history.

And if Palin goes “all-in” for 2012 and loses, recent history indicates she’d never be a serious presidential contender again. Since Nixon swam in flop-sweat on a network television debate and lost in 1960 to John F. Kennedy, then returned for another shot in 1968, not a single person has gotten a second chance at the White House. Forty-three years and counting.

Her supporters don't like to hear it, and I don't blame them, but the credibility problem Palin faces in the electorate at large is real, and it's huge. It means that if Palin won the GOP nomination in 2012, the Goldwater scenario could repeat itself. Her candidacy would motivate the opposition (whether it comes from moderate Republicans or the entire spectrum of Democrats) as much as or more than her base -- because moderates aren’t zealots even if they decide to vote for her.

Upon a Palin declaration, Democratic Party headquarters across the country would start filling with money and volunteers – heck, even grocery coupons, Applebee’s gift cards, clothing donations, Thermoses of coffee and sandbags. And the donations wouldn’t only be coming from Democrats.

How Sarah Palin does become president

I know it's not a foregone conclusion that Palin would lose the general, that she's been underestimated before, yada yada. No need to tell me how high above her weight class Palin can punch. I watched many of the 2006 Alaska gubernatorial debates. They cinched Palin’s win against two candidates who foolishly kept answering the questions that moderators asked. But the U.S. is not Alaska, and Alaskans didn’t know much about Palin back then; now it’s hard to find someone around the English-speaking world who doesn’t know at least a little about her.

Palin has said herself many times that if she ran for president, she would be running to win, not to lose and try again later. Running to win doesn’t mean declaring a primary campaign fearful of winning it. Running to win doesn’t mean relying on a thinly-spread, inexperienced group of passionate volunteers on a hastily-gathered budget instead of a robust campaign structure with a Fort Knox-sized war chest.

Running to win means waiting until 2016, at least, when there won't be an incumbent president and the Democratic field could be as incoherent as the Republican field is right now.

Running to win for Palin also doesn’t mean running as a third-party candidate, a possibility pundits tend not to include in their Palin calculus. The tea party movement, fractured as it is, might yet become a new party and actually earn the proper-noun capital letters so many people in the media have gifted it freely.

Leading a third party is Palin’s hole card, but if it comes to that, I think it means she has already lost. Palin’s status as a Republican reformer, one of her most-trumpeted plusses, could not have been created had she left her own party. It won’t be able to grow bigger on the national stage if she abandons the national party, either.

Reformers who exit the structures they aim to influence turn into outsiders, and lose the ability to say convincingly that they don’t want to destroy what they simply seek to modify. That, in addition to how easy it is for splinter groups to alienate mainstream voters, has been a big obstacle for many third-party candidates, most recently Ross Perot and Ralph Nader. Republican Party leaders cool on Palin have to know that. If she runs a serious campaign, it will be as a Republican. And if GOP leaders want to get rid of her, they should do everything they can to convince her to run in 2012.

Palin's probably not as stupid as critics say she is, and even if she is, the people around her aren't. They all have to see how brutal a 2012 general race would be. They have to know how easily she could win the primary and how costly a general election loss would be for her political future.

Ultimately, for me to believe that Palin will run for president in 2012 and throw away potentially decades of bedeviling the nationwide political debate with attenuated metaphors and vague platitudes which the devalued marketplace of ideas treats as concrete, legitimate policy statements, I must accept too many of the negative things people have said about her. I’d have to accept that objective reality does not enter her decision-making process; that her inner circle is full of blind zealots and self-interested yes-people; and that she's deluded and prideful enough to think that God has endorsed her politics and personal ambitions.

I’d also have to believe she’s willing to trade an assured place in the political conversation for an unlikely try at winning the most thankless job DC for four years, or more. If she thought the Alaska “leggies,” the term of endearment emails revealed she had for state legislators, are hard to deal with, she should try Congress.

For Palin, the “will she won’t she” debate amounts to a dire choice: To keep lobbing bombs from behind a social-media rampart and influencing the national discussion indefinitely, or to throw it away and attempt to win the White House against the worst odds imaginable with no formal campaign structure. Usually, that choice gets presented in terms of money that Palin won’t be able to continue making, but I’m skeptical that’s her main consideration. I think she does want to keep distorting the national conversation with populist exaggerations, but the way to do that isn’t to run in 2012.

Maybe it's a mark of madness to trade a certain, long-term position in the public eye for short-term vainglory, but maybe it’s madness to bet on an event one cares little about, as I have done here. Though truly I don’t care one way or another if she announces a run, I remain skeptical she will. Maybe I'm a sucker for trying to predict anything about Palin-world at all (the former governor's behavior is about as predictable as a quantum particle's, another reason American voters seem wary of her), but it seemed like fun at the time.

Happily, the only thing at stake here for me personally is that Amanda Coyne might win the opportunity to pick a book for me to read. Hopefully she has a good one in mind, but like Palin, she's staying mum about her choice.

Alaska Dispatch encourages a diversity of opinion and community perspectives. The opinions expressed herein are those of the contributor and are not necessarily endorsed or condoned by Alaska Dispatch. Contact Scott Woodham at swoodham@alaskadispatch.com

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