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April 12, 2012 11:40 AM Romney, Luck, and Palin

By Jonathan Bernstein

A lot of the commentary recently looking back on the Republican nomination process this cycle concluded, again, that Mitt Romney was lucky – specifically, in his opponents. Going whole hog down this path, Philip Klein argues that Romney was lucky that his opponent at the end was Rick Santorum – and not, of all people Sarah Palin.

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.

Really?

The Sage of Wasilla, it is true, would have had a group of strong supporters. But Klein forgets one important difference between Santorum and Palin: Republicans knew who Sarah Palin was, and outside of a small group of her strong supporters, most Republicans wanted her nowhere near the White House. Including many who liked her.

Indeed, a Palin candidacy would have unfolded somewhat similar to the way Newt Gingrich’s candidacy went, with Republican politicians and others with a strong stake in having a solid candidate in November taking the lead in bashing the former Alaska governor and reality TV star, especially if and when she was doing well. Check that: it did unfold that way, when Palin dipped her toe in the waters by diverting her book tour to Iowa and other early contest states. Romney never had to lift a finger.

Now, Romney is lucky in that Santorum is basically at the end of the day a regular Republican, and he wasn’t apt to attempt to sink the ticket out of spite. Sarah Palin has given every indication that she is capable of doing just that. On the other hand…she’s still out there, and still has fans. Perhaps more than she would have had if she had entered, say, a long series of presidential debates. Palin hasn’t had the occasion to feud with Mitt Romney, and it’s true that had she run that might have been more likely, but there’s still plenty of time, and she would still be a major headache for the nominee if she decides to start making demands and threatens to walk. You think the press just might decide to pay attention if she held a Tea Party counterconvention down the street from Romney’s convention? Better question: do you think a single reporter would be left at the Republican show, at least outside of the big prime time speeches, if Palin put on a show elsewhere in town?

The truth is, as I’ve said many times, that the actual Republican field, the one that included Tim Pawlenty and Rick Perry and Haley Barbour and perhaps a few others, was probably about as formidable as Romney was likely to get this time. In the sense that there was no popular former Vice President or similar heavyweight anywhere on the horizon, one could fairly describe Romney as lucky, but in that Mitch Daniels was easy to scare off — or perhaps, really didn’t have interest? Not so much. And while Palin is a permanent potential headache for the party, overall I’m just not convinced that she would have been a much bigger headache had she contested — and lost — a bunch of primaries.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

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Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.