Many strategists brush of the the possibility that Sarah Palin, with her paltry national approval rating of 22 percent, could ever win the White House. But if she does decide to run, a string of plausible events might actually allow her to prevail, says John Heilemann in New York. "The scenario might seem bizarre, but we live in bizarre times. [And] it's worth contemplating how much weirder things might get in 2012, and whether that weirdness could be so extreme as to make the unthinkable, thinkable." Here's one way we could end up with a President Palin:
Step 1: Palin takes the early primaries
Assumption: Evangelical support for the Alaskan conservative helps her win the Republican caucus in Iowa, says Heilemann. In the weeks after that, she heads to New Hampshire, where she wins with the help of a strong Tea Party; in South Carolina, Jim DeMint conservatives push her over the top; and in Nevada, Sharron Angle has already primed the state's conservative base, easing Palin's path to victory. Throughout all this, the establishment candidates are so afraid of offending Tea Partiers that they never really go after Palin.
Critique: Maybe, says Jonathan Capeheart at The Washington Post. But "I don't buy the argument that they won't attack Palin for fear of ticking off the base." She's vulnerable on a lot of fronts. "To borrow a phrase from Mama, they will reload as many times as it takes to kill her candidacy."
Step 2: Conservative voters reject Mitt Romney
Assumption: "In a normal presidential cycle," says Heilemann, the well-funded onetime Massachusetts governor would pierce Palin's bubble. But the Obamacare-like health-care law he enacted in his own state diminishes his support from the Tea Party, which backs Palin instead. Romney is also hurt by being an establishment candidate in a party "where all of the energy is flowing towards insurgency." In such a climate, fellow establishmentarians Tim Pawlenty, Haley Barbour, and Mitch Daniels are similarly left flailing.
Step 3: Palin surprises everyone by eking out the GOP nomination
Assumption: The widespread belief is that — even if the route involves some twists and turns — an establishment candidate will eventually claim the nomination, says Heilemann. But what about Palin's "ability to create a spectacle, get a crowd, whip up people — is that translatable into a plurality victory in a Republican primary?" a senior strategist wonders. "It's impossible to know. Because you've never seen anything like it. It's totally uncharted territory."
Critique: But a more realistic outcome, says Steve Kornacki at Salon, is that a "dark horse [would] emerge," someone "more plausibly electable than Palin" — like South Dakota Sen. John Thune or New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. "That could kill her nomination hopes."
Step 4: Enter third candidate Michael Bloomberg
Assumption: The New York mayor dropped plans to run as a centrist candidate in the 2008 election because he felt Obama and McCain were vying for his territory, says Heilemann, but it is a more polarized landscape now. Bloomberg has a circle of people "urging him to run," and a desire to become president. Insiders say he would only enter the race if support for Obama drops to the low 40s or below — not an impossibility in the current climate. And he has the money to make a serious impact in the race.
Critique: But it would never happen, says Bloomberg biographer Joyce Purnick in the New York Daily News. Our mayor's "policies and ideas are anathema to much of America" — and he knows it. "Bloomberg wouldn't have become Bloomberg if he didn't know how to play the odds."
Step 5: Obama fails to win 270 electoral votes
Assumption: The "likeliest" scenario is that a Bloomberg candidacy would help Obama win re-election, says Heilemann. But if the urbanite third party candidate wins New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Florida, and California, and Palin carries the red states, the president might fail to secure 270 electoral votes. Then, the "election would be thrown to the House of Representatives" — which, after next Tuesday, will likely be under Republican control — with the result: "Hello, President Palin!"
Critique: Not necessarily, says Doug Mataconis at Outside the Beltway. Under the 12th Amendment, each state would get a single vote, making the process a lot more complicated than simply crowning Palin president.