I enjoyed Tom Schaller's prediction last week that Sarah Palin wouldn't run for president in 2012. I think his logic about her chances of winning is sound, as is his observation that a candidate intending to seek the presidency in 2012 wouldn't resign her governorship now; in fact, such a candidate should seek re-election. One could add that it makes no sense at all for Palin to escalate her public feud with her ex-almost-son-in-law.
That, however, is just the problem with predicting Palin's actions: there's no sign at all that she's operating by the normal rules of politics. The downside of this for her is that she is rapidly squandering any chance she ever had of recovering her standing with the bulk of the American people. However, it makes her even harder to predict than it makes most pols -- and, in my view, these sorts of predictions are fairly useless anyway other than for the fun factor. We can properly analyze the incentives for a candidate to run, but predicting which way a candidate will react to those incentives requires getting into her head. Of the major four Democratic candidates leading up to 2008, it turned out that Clinton and Edwards ran, while Kerry and Gore passed. Was that predictable in advance? I don't think so, at least not without knowing a whole lot more about them as individuals.
One thing we can do is observe that whatever Palin may do later on, right now she does appear to be running for president: she's basically doing the things that a candidate in her situation would do (Josh Putnam has a nice turn of phrase for this: he talks about candidates who are running for 2012, regardless of whether they will be running in 2012). The case that Palin is running now isn't as clear as the case for, say, Romney or Pawlenty, but then again the things she needs to do are different. I'm comfortable saying that she's running, for now. (The giveaway? The footnotes on her facebook posts. That's an effort to show that she has real substance, something only needed if she wants to be taken seriously beyond her current fans).
Now, with Palin, there's also been considerable speculation that her "real" goal is to extract as much money as she can from her current situation (something that's only going to accelerate with this story, even if it turns out to be not true).
So: Palin is doing the things that she would do, sort of and in her particular way, if she was currently running for president. There's running for president, though, and running for president. The "running for president" that Obama, McCain, Romney, and Edwards did in 2008 isn't quite the same thing as the "running for president" that Pat Robertson, Jesse Jackson (especially in 1984, but probably in 1988 as well), Alan Keyes, and Dennis Kucinich did. I'm starting to think that a Palin 2012 campaign might well be more along those lines than it would a full-blown, in-it-to-win-it effort.
Two things about that. First, I'm not really sure that Palin herself will realize, and I'm sure she would never acknowledge, that that's what she's doing.
Second...the campaigns like that over the last few cycles have almost all been busts, in terms of any effect on who gets nominated. Keyes, Kucinich, Sharpton, Gary Bauer -- none of those candidates made a dent in the results of the Iowa Caucuses or the New Hampshire Primary; none of them, as far as I can recall, won a single contest. The most successful was Ron Paul in 2008, but he failed to reach 10% in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Palin could be different; Palin could be a lot more like Jesse Jackson in 1984.
Here's what I'm envisioning. Sarah Palin announces for the presidency. She enters all the primaries and caucuses. She sets up a campaign organization, but it's constantly beset by trouble; aides come and go, sniping at her in the press on their way out. Palin herself doesn't work to hard. She gives some speeches, does a little door-to-door stuff, shows up at debates, and finds a few friendly TV and radio hosts to spend a good deal of time with, and gives a handful of regular media interviews. And that's about it.
She's able to raise money, so she gets her adds on the air. She stumbles her way through debates (with a large field, it's not as if the early debates require much) and her handful of "real" media interviews. She retains her intense popularity with one group of Republicans, and gains no new fans. And she tallies between 20% and 33% of the vote in state after state.
Normal candidates, candidates who are attempting to become president, quit when they can't win. Jackson/Keyes/Paul type candidates don't. They don't need that much money, so they can't be stopped by party bigwigs leaning on donors to cut them off. They often aren't in it for anything the party can give them, so the party has very little in leverage over them.
At the level of an Alan Keyes or a Denis Kucinich, these candidates are just a minor nuisance. At 25% or 30% of the vote, they can cause all kinds of real problems.
I'm not exactly predicting that Sarah Palin will be Jackson '84, but I could very easily see her headed that way.