What If Sarah Palin Had Run?

What would have happened if Sarah Palin had decided to run for the Republican nomination this year?

The Washington Examiner’s Philip Klein argues that Mitt Romney would have had a much tougher road to the Republican nomination if Sarah Palin had decided to run this year:

As he approaches the task of uniting the Republican party ahead of his all but official general election campaign, Mitt Romney will benefit from the same reality that’s worked to his favor the entire race — the composition of the Republican field. Specifically, Romney is fortunate that he had to beat out Rick Santorum to claim the nomination rather than Sarah Palin.

When Romney decided to seek the presidency for the second time, his moderate to liberal record in Massachusetts was bound to trigger a challenge from the right and set up a showdown, framed in shorthand, as the establishment of the party versus the conservative base. Had Palin been in the race as the conservative alternative, it would have been very difficult for Romney to attack her given the passionate following she has among many conservatives, because he wouldn’t want to risk alienating them. Even if he had ultimately triumphed after a brutal primary fight, a lot of her loyal supporters would have found it difficult to bury the hatchet for the general election.

By contrast, Santorum came into the race with a very small following and was polling in the low single digits early on. Only when a number of other hopefuls fizzled did he emerge as the conservative alternative to Romney. Don’t get me wrong, as I wrote earlier, I think Santorum raised his profile over the course of the race and proved to be a tenacious campaigner. But the point is that Santorum’s support was as much about him being a vehicle for those who wanted to stop Romney than it was about a groundswell of support for him personally.

Klein is correct in that last point, of course, which is why I’m skeptical of the idea that Santorum is going to be able to build a real political following out of the surprising success he had in this race. For the most part, the people who supported him did so because he ended up being the most viable, and most likeable (by comparison to Newt Gingrich) not-Romney in the race. He was completely replaceable, though, and if Palin or some other prominent politician that appealed to evangelical voters such as Mike Huckabee had run then he probably would not have made it past the Iowa Caucuses.

I’m not sure that Klein is completely correct about Palin, though.

It’s true that she would have entered the race with a ready-made committed base of support, and she clearly would have done a better job raising funds than Santorum, Cain, Bachmann, or Gingrich ever did. However, just as the story in the race that actually occurred turned out to be the slow begrudging acceptance of Mitt Romney by the GOP’s race, the story in this alternative universe where Palin ran would have been Palin and the many doubts that were already being expressed about her candidacy a year ago when there was nearly daily speculation about whether or not she would enter the race.

When pondering a conterfactual like this, it’s worth remembering what was going on a year ago. When 2011 began, Sarah Palin ended up finding herself the victim of what I considered an unfair attack from the left over the Gabrielle Giffords shooting. In typical Palin fashion, though, she managed to completely bungle her own response to the tragedy and, as a result, public opinion about her took some of the biggest nosedives it had since the 2008 Presidential campaign. By February, early polling was showing her underperforming in early primary states. By March, she began losing support among Republicans, the one demographic group that had remained loyal to her since the end of the 2008 Presidential campaign. By June, 54% of Republicans were saying that they did not want Palin to run in 2012. By September, that number had increased to 74%. The point in reciting these numbers is to make one thing clear. There’s no doubt that Sarah Palin would have been a formidable candidate had she run due in no small part to the passion of her supporters. However, the Palin juggernaut itself was far from all powerful last year and there were plenty of Republicans who had doubts about putting such a divisive and polarizing figure at the top of their ticket.

So, let me posit a conterfactual to Klein’s counterfactual.

Palin enters the race in late Spring 2011 amid much fanfare, supporter enthusiasm, and of course the requisite media circus. Almost immediately she skyrockets to the top of the polls in a head-to-head confrontation with Mitt Romney, leaving all the other conservative candidates (Cain, Santorum, Bachmann, Gingrich) in the dust. Klein is right that Romney himself  wouldn’t directly go after Palin, at least not initially, but that wouldn’t stop any number for establishment surrogates from beginning to work behind the scenes to prevent the nightmare scenario of a Palin nomination. Just as conservatives tried to unleash a “Stop Romney” movement over the past year, establishment and mainline Republicans would look at the polls and unleash a “Stop Palin” movement, and my bet is that it would be fare more successful. Moreover, at some point, the voters would get to see Sarah Palin and Mitt Romney on a debate stage together and, for all his flaws, Mitt Romney would look like a freaking genius standing next to her. The entire race would have unfolded in a completely different manner, and not necessarily one that would have favored Palin at all.

In the end, I think Romney would have beaten Palin although it would’ve been a far tougher fight. The other possibility, of course, is that Palin would have imploded in much the same way that Perry, Bachmann, Cain, and Gingrich did, and that’s entirely possible. Feel free to come up with your own scenario, but my point is that I think that there’s a reason that Sarah Palin didn’t run in 2012. And that reason is because she knew that there was a very good possibility that she would have lost.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2012, Politicians, Sarah Palin, US Politics,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. legion says:

    I think another “x-factor” in a potential Palin run is: how much money could she realistically bring in? She doesn’t have the wealth of a Romney to float her, so she’d need to either cultivate a sugar daddy like Gingrich’s or pull vast amounts of smaller donations from the rank and file GOP. Would that have been enough to make her competitive in this race? I honestly don’t know.

  2. anjin-san says:

    This nonsense my play well on the far right, but the reality is Palin did not have the heart for it, nor any capacity for sustained effort. She certainly does not have the skills to successfully oppose Obama. Basically, she is a talented snake oil salesman who looks good in a skirt.

  3. wr says:

    We know what would have happened if Palin had run, because her doppelganger did. Doesn’t anyone remember Michelle Bachman?

  4. al-Ameda says:

    Hard to believe, but if Palin had been all-in from the start, the Republican primary season and all of those ‘debates’ would have been even more entertaining than they inadvertently turned out to be.

  5. MM says:

    @anjin-san: Agreed. I think Palin would have had an arc that looked similar to Rick Perry’s, especially in debates where she would have been immediately contrasted with Michelle Bachmann (who is just as conservative if not more so and is actually a decent public speaker).

    The only significant change to the primary season would have been the fact that Palin’s persecution complex would have forced her to find ways to shoehorn in some of her favorite lines about palling around with terrorists, and not to retreat but to reload.

    Also, she and at least one other candidate would have written notes on their hands for no other reason than to make a teleprompter joke.

    Fundraising aside, she still would have had the same logistical flaws that doomed a lot of the candidates. She wouldn’t trust “establishment” aides, and she would have made procedural mistakes that would have kept her off too many ballots

  6. KariQ says:

    I think the only people who really wanted Palin to run were members of the media. She pretends to disdain the press (or maybe actually does, who knows?) while providing them with plenty of provocative statements and making copy. Few things are more important to a person than whatever makes their job easy, and she certainly did that. I think political reporters all over the country cried into their drinks when she made it official she wasn’t running. The rest of us, including the majority of Republicans, didn’t care.

  7. grumpy realist says:

    Oh, I would predict that Suffrin’ Sarah would have hung around for a few weeks, then burst into tears about how MEEEAAN all the other Republican candidates were to her, and stomped off stage.

    This woman couldn’t even stand up to someone asking her what newspapers she reads without getting thrown into a tizzy. I really doubt she would have had the stamina for a real political campaign at the national level. The only reason she lasted through the last election cycle is that she was picked from political near-oblivion by McCain, and then grimly held onto by his election cabal even while her incompetence was becoming the topic of SNL skits.

    Sarah? On her own? Fuggetabbatit.

  8. al-Ameda says:

    @KariQ: “She pretends to disdain the press (or maybe actually does, who knows?) while providing them with plenty of provocative statements and making copy.”

    Kari, that – “plenty of provocative statements and making copy” – is exactly the reason why I wanted her in the race. Entertainment value.

  9. Tsar Nicholas says:

    Palin = Michelle Bachmann + Herman Cain. Ergo not too much of anything, other than perhaps several LOL SNL skits.

  10. CSK says:

    Well, she was never going to run, because a) she didn’t want the job, though she does like attention, as witness that ludicrous truncated nationwide bus tour/carnival ride/family vacation/whatever it was last summer; b) it’s too much work; c) she would have been laughed off the stage during the debates. Rick Perry would have looked like Rick Pericles in comparison to her.

  11. JohnMcC says:

    @CSK: Mr CSK, if that bus tour had gone on much longer and included any more press coverage of Ms Palin’s ignorance (Paul Revere’s ride, for example), I would have ground my molars to dust. As it turned out, Ms Bachmann came very close to requiring me to get caps on both 3rd back grinders. That business of placing Lexington and Concord in Maine? OUCH! My dentist is very sorry to see this primary season end.

  12. Nikki says:

    @anjin-san: And we women recognized her for what she is. That’s why she didn’t pull in as many women as was expected–she’s a mean girl who doesn’t hesitate to play on her looks.

  13. Hey Norm says:

    Well…she’s a liar, a loser, and a quitter. So that’s what would have happened one way or another.

  14. CSK says:

    @Mr. JohnMcC: I’m not a Mr., but that’s okay. Bachmann was actually in Concord, New Hampshire when she mistook it for Concord, Mass. And she compounded that stupidity when she went to South Carolina and demanded that the crowd sing “Happy Birthday” to Elvis–only it was the anniversary of his death, as someone in the utterly bemused crowd finally pointed out to her. As for Palin, I was really hoping her bus tour would take her to Georgia, so I could listen to her explication of how Sherman rang those bells and shot those cannons and burned all those buildings to warn the rebels that they were going to be free and they were going to be secure. Or something like that. I share your tooth agony; I’m sure I helped finance my periodontist’s new BMW.

    As to the alternate reality of Palin running? She would have won a few primaries in the deep south and maybe one or two in the midwest. Maybe. As David Axelrod said when asked about the possibility of Palin actually winning the nomination: “I don’t think we’ll be that lucky.” She has a small, fanatical base of devotees. Every other Republican just wishes she’d go away.

  15. gVOR08 says:

    One – organizing a presidential campaign and running seriously is hard work. No way Palin was going to do it.

    Two – the crazy lady niche was already occupied.

  16. Brummagem Joe says:

    It would have made the carnival marginally more entertaining (the bar was pretty high as it was) but it’s hard to see it having any materially significant effect on the outcome. The only potentially serious opponent Romney faced was Perry and once it became clear he was a klutz it was largely over.

  17. J-Dub says:

    “Golly gee , there they go again , lamestream media ”

    I think she could have won the nomination, and with Allen West as her VP she would put the GOP right where they belong!