Posted on | April 17, 2012 | 71 Comments
Sarah Palin speaks in Manchester, N.H., Sept. 5, 2011
Yesterday, Ross Douthat engaged in a “counterfactual” what-if about the 2012 primary campaign: Could Sarah Palin have won?
Speculation unmoored from actual facts is one of those games intellectuals love to play. It’s light work for brainy people to imagine what might have been in an alternative universe. By contrast, the business of reporting — trying to get sources to return your calls, for example — is often enormously frustrating and the labor-to-output ratio sometimes makes you wonder if it’s worth it.
Why bother picking up the phone, when you can just speculate?
Successful politics involves telling stories — “narrative arc,” as the intellectuals say. In 2008, Sarah Palin had an awesome narrative arc: Feisty mother of five, husband an oil worker and snowmobile race champ, she fought the odds, beat the Republican establishment, became governor of Alaska, and was plucked from (relative) obscurity as the surprise choice for vice-presidential running mate.
Then her enemies went to work on her, and messed up that story, so she was scapegoated for John McCain’s 2008 loss and was made a symbol of everything anybody might hate about the Republican Party: A religious fanatic. A negligent mother. A tacky, selfish, scheming manipulator. An unsophisticated airhead lacking basic knowledge about major policy matters, who quit before her first term ended under a cloud of ethics allegations, and then cashed in with a book deal, a reality show, and a contract with Fox News.
A 2012 Palin for President campaign would have been about repudiating that negative version of her story, recapturing the narrative arc of the feisty Alaska hockey mom that had made her a heroine to so many people in 2008. And I would have loved to cover that campaign.
Peter Singleton and Michelle McCormick had me half-convinced at one point it might actually happen. (See, “Still Waiting for Sarah,” The American Spectator, Aug. 22.) I traveled to New Hampshire over Labor Day weekend to cover a Palin rally (“The People’s Palin,” The American Spectator, Sept. 6) where she drew a bigger crowd — and vastly more media coverage — than Mitt Romney had the day before. By the time she finally bowed out (“Sarah Says No,” The American Spectator, Oct. 6) Palin’s supporters had endured two months of agony, only to have their hearts broken, and were exposed to sadistic mockery from Erick Erickson merely for having hoped at all.
Perhaps you understand why I don’t particularly relish watching Ross Douthat, Allahpundit and Philip Klein (none of whom were ever prominently pro-Palin) do a leisurely re-hash of the hypothetical counterfactuals of a Palin campaign that didn’t happen.
You might want to re-read what I wrote about embittered cynicism as the bedrock belief system of the conservative grassroots.
What I liked about Rick Santorum’s campaign was that he had a great narrative arc: Grandson of an Italian immigrant coal miner, cast aside after his 2006 Senate defeat, given no chance at all by the media experts, tirelessly crisscrosses Iowa and — in a Christmas miracle! — suddenly surges ahead to win the crucial caucuses, becoming an overnight contender, emerging to mount a grassroots populist challenge to the Establishment frontrunner. As I wrote last week:
Santorum’s campaign raised just $2.2 million in all of 2011; by the time he emerged as one of the final four candidates for the GOP nomination, he had outlasted five candidates — Pawlenty, Cain, Bachmann, Huntsman, and Perry — all of whom once led him in the polls, and whose campaigns spent a combined total of more than $55 million.
One reason I preferred Santorum over Gingrich is that Newt’s life story lacked any appealing narrative arc. One reason Mitt Romney’s candidacy fills me with such forebodings of doom is that it will be so easy for Team Obama to construct a negative narrative about him.
Rather than wasting time on hindsight speculation, then, let’s consider this: Lisa Graas and some diehard Santorum supporters have mounted a “Vote for Rick Anyway” campaign. Even though he has officially suspended his campaign, Santorum will still be on the ballot in many states. By casting a vote for Santorum, conservatives can register their continued commitment to principle, and their continued resentment of the way the GOP Establishment lined up behind Romney.
It is possible — perhaps not likely, but nevertheless still possible — that the “Vote for Rick Anyway” movement could actually hand Romney an unexpected defeat in one or two primaries between now and June. A surprise win by a non-candidate over the presumptive nominee would at least make it clear to Team Mitt that they can’t just take conservatives for granted, which would seem to be their game plan for the general election campaign. (Supporting the Lilly Ledbetter Act? Really?)
L.A. blogger Joe Fein at Valley of the Shadow talks about narrative arc in terms of TV Tropes, and his understanding of how the “meta-story” works in politics is important to study for 2012 and beyond. Today’s headlines portend doom this fall:
Others see reasons for hope in these early polls, but what I see is Romney struggling against the SCOAMF from the very outset of the general election campaign, before the Obama message machine — what Breitbart called the Democrat-Media Complex — has even really started telling its version of Mitt’s story: The insincere flip-flopping panderer, the greedy vulture capitalist with the weird “secretive” religion. By the time the machine is done working him over, Romney will have higher negatives than Martin Boorman.
Republicans are prepared to flush $800 million down the toilet in their doomed effort to elect Romney and, when we find ourselves sitting amid the ruins of another electoral cataclysm on the morning of Wednesday, Nov. 7, the GOP Establishment will still find some way to blame the defeat of their handpicked candidate on the conservatives who opposed his “inevitability” all along. I remind you once again of these numbers:
REPUBLICAN PRIMARY VOTE
Mitt Romney ……… 4,595,908 (40.7%)
Rick Santorum …… 3,209,301 (28.3%)
Newt Gingrich ……. 2,284,557 (20.4%)
Ron Paul ……………. 1,191,026 (10.6%)
$66.8 million + super-PAC $40.5 million = $107.3 million
$19.2 million + super-PAC $16.6 million = $35.8 million
$13.0 million + super-PAC $7.5 million = $20.5 million
SPENDING PER VOTE
$107. 3 million (65.6% of total)
4.6 million votes (40.7% of total)
Price per vote = $23.33
$35.8 million (21.9% of total)
2.3 million votes (20.4% of total)
Price per vote = $15.57
$20.5 million (12.5% of total)
3.2 million votes (28.3% of total)
Price per vote = $6.41
Whatever else is said about 2012, no one can argue with this: Romney bought its primary votes at a premium, while the Santorum campaign was more than three times as efficient on a dollar-per-vote basis.
Now, anyone can feel free to believe that there is still some chance Mitt can beat Obama. We cannot preclude that possibility, no matter how remote the odds seem on a sober calculation. But if I’m right, and Romney is already doomed beyond all hope of redemption, then Santorum is already pre-positioned as the 2016 frontrunner.
Go ahead and scoff. I remember early December, when he was stuck in single digits, and “Santorurm Surge” was a sarcastic inside joke among the campaign press corps. Reporters showed up at that Dec. 26 duck hunt because Santorum was pretty much the only candidate campaigning the day after Christmas, and none of those reporters really believed — as I had detected two weeks earlier — that the surge was for real. Two days later, on Wednesday, Dec. 28, a CNN poll showed Santorum had moved up to a strong third place, and he was off to the races. He won the Iowa caucuses six days later without ever having led a single poll.
Nothing succeeds like success. Santorum’s 2012 campaign added a compelling new chapter to his story, and provides a solid base for 2016. One hesitates to provide unsolicited advice, but what if:
- Santorum can identify among his 2012 contributors 5,000 hard-core supporters who will commit to giving $50 a month to a new political action committee? That’s $3 million a year.
- Santorum campaigns actively for GOP candidates at every level, and making early contributions from his PAC to help “seed” contenders?
- Santorum works hard on his messaging and image, staying firmly conservative while emphasizing the optimistic, cheerful side of his personality and his policy expertise?
One can imagine Santorum finding many occasions to visit Iowa regularly, speaking at county GOP dinners and so forth, and also working to build a strong network of support in New Hampshire, South Carolina, Florida and Nevada. One can likewise imagine him making occasional (unpaid) TV appearances as a guest commentator. Conservatives who were slow to rally to Santorum in this cycle because of his long-shot status would have every reason to back him early in the 2016 cycle.
Hindsight spilled-milk “what if” speculation about 2012 is an interesting intellectual exercise, but speculation about a Santorum 2016 comeback might be quite realistic. However, this possibility is premised on catastrophe: A cataclyasmic wipeout for Romney on Nov. 6, with Obama re-elected to a second term of incompetent misrule.
If this is too much gloom for you, look on the bright side: The ancient Mayan calendar predicts the end of the world in December, which would at least spare us from another four years of Obama.
UPDATE: Thanks to Lisa Graas for this tip:
- April 16: Further Omens of Impending Doom
- April 14: It Could Conceivably Be Worse
- April 12: The Fox Factor: Newt, Sarah, Mitt, Rick, Bias and ‘The Mother of All Spin-Jobs’
- April 11: Memo From the National Affairs Desk: Foreboding Gloom Pervades Vanuatu
- April 10: SANTORUM DROPS OUT
- April 9: Nate Silver, the Experts and … Me
- April 8: Predictable: Gingrich Admits He Owes More Than $4 Million Campaign Debt
- April 6: Memo From the National Affairs Desk: Eyewitness to History in Florida
- April 4: Mark Levin and the Omens of Doom