Why Palin could run as an independent

There’s been some chatter this week about the possibility that former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) might run for president next year — as an independent. 

The consequences for both her and the presidential race couldn’t be more profound, and there are a number of reasons why this could be a very real possibility.

The deadline for entering primaries in many states is rapidly approaching, and yet a rapid decision from Palin doesn’t seem to be on the horizon, despite past words to the contrary. 

ADVERTISEMENT
In July, she told Fox News that legal concerns would coax a decision from her. “Well, legally, of course, there are timeframes, and that time is coming rapidly in front of us all,” she conceded.

“August and September, you do have to start laying out a plan if you are to be one to throw your hat in the ring, so that’s basically the timeframe.”

She indicated the same thing the next month when she told ABC that September was the “drop-dead date.”

Yet September has come and gone and Palin seems no closer to a decision. In fact, as of late, she’s become defiant at the talk of a timeline. She told Fox News last month that she would not “let the media tell me or dictate when a drop-dead date should be,” and since then, she’s dismissed any idea of a deadline.

It seems Palin is in no hurry to announce a decision even as the calendar, legal constraints and organizing constraints hurry upon presidential candidates. With each passing day, it looks as if Palin’s chance of running as a Republican is passing.

If she doesn’t run, her voice will suddenly become marginalized as the media turn their focus toward the Republicans candidates who are running, and not Palin’s Facebook notes. Yet there’s one thing we know about Palin: She loves attention and isn’t willing to relinquish it easily.

On the same June day that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) announced his run for president in New Hampshire, Palin showed up unexpectedly and sucked his attention away. And on the same weekend that the 2012 candidates converged on Iowa for the state’s straw poll, Palin also showed up, unexpectedly again, and again took much of the attention away.

Last week, business mogul Donald Trump suggested to Fox News that Palin needed to step into the background and let the declared candidates have the spotlight. But Palin hasn’t shown any interest in sharing it, and one can easily imagine a scenario where she makes an aggressive push to insert herself into the conversation again.

Palin has held the GOP establishment in contempt since 2008. During the 2010 elections, she regularly railed against the “GOP machine” and “good old boys,” and both she and her supporters have accused the party of trying to muzzle Palin. In fact, Palin’s embrace of the Tea Party movement has regularly been coupled with attacks on the Republican Party, and she’s often keen to note that her spirit and principles are conservative, not Republican.

In short, Palin doesn’t claim loyalty to the GOP, and in fact loathes the party establishment. There’d be no greater blow she could strike to the GOP elite than to run as an independent and siphon off votes from the Republican nominee. Party bigwigs would either fawn over her, trying to coax her out of the race, or attack her mercilessly as they try to discredit her among conservative-minded voters. Either way, Palin would once again be the center of attention.

As former George W. Bush strategist and No Labels co-founder Mark McKinnon says: “I think Palin will continue to find creative ways to stay relevant to the conversation, and threatening a third-party bid could certainly be in her toolkit.”

But beyond that lies the sheer spectacle that a third-party bid from Palin would provide, and Palin seems to love spectacles. Every four years, the media work to find a way to insert a credible independent candidate into the general election. This dynamic raises the profile of a presidential race considerably, but not since Ross Perot’s first bid in 1992 have we seen anything close to what could happen in 2012. 

ADVERTISEMENT
Imagine that the independent candidate is Sarah Palin. The equation would be explosive — a political figure who’s provoked endless fascination with a phenomenon that’s rarely seen. 

Dartmouth Professor Brendan Nyhan, a best-selling media critic, said the prospect would raise overwhelming flash — if not overwhelming results at the ballot box. 

“It would be a spectacle,” Nyhan said, “but I don’t think she’d be taken nearly as seriously by the press as a centrist third-party candidate like Perot would be. Perot actually briefly led in the polls, whereas she has negative ratings well over 50 percent and would be lucky to get double digits.”

On that, McKinnon agrees. “Palin’s fortunes are literally still closely tied to the Republican Party and Fox News. And Palin actually does not have much support among true independent voters.”

But winning might not be what she’s looking for. After all, to the spoiler go the spoils.

Heinze, the founder of GOP12.com, is a staff member at The Hill. Find his column, GOP Presidential Primary, on thehill.com.