Would Palin run as a third-party candidate?

I’m 99 and 44/100ths percent sure the answer’s “no” but I’m intrigued that Palin fan R.S. McCain (who once collaborated on a book with Palin’s collaborator on “Going Rogue”) seems slightly open to the possibility.

And now it’s time to take notice of another fact: Last night on Sean Hannity’s show, Sarah Palin — having previously specified September as the deadline for her to enter the 2012 field — appeared to extend her timeline to November. That alone is enough to make all the pundits groan at the prospect of another two months of will-she-or-won’t-she drama, but what do you make of this?

“This is going to be such an unconventional election cycle. … Mark my word, it is going to be an unconventional type of election process.”

Is Palin hinting at a possible third-party campaign? I strongly doubt it, but neither would I rule it out, and I’m also thinking about the possibility that the changes to the delegate apportionment rules — no “winner-take-all” primaries in March — could lead to a brokered convention at Tampa. Whatever the tea-leaf readers see in Palin’s comments, I think she’s absolutely right: 2012 has already been an unconventional election cycle, and people should be skeptical about bandwagon organizers who think they can predict events many months in advance.

There are three good reasons for a candidate to run third-party. One: They have an extremely loyal base that’ll follow them out of the party. Two: Their base isn’t big enough to win the primaries. Three: They’re more interested in their own agenda, political or personal, than in defeating the other party’s candidate. That’s why Ron Paul’s a perennial third-party prospect. He’s stuck at 15 percent or so in GOP polls and he thinks Democrats and Republicans in Congress are more or less indistinguishable, especially on foreign policy, so there’s no great loss to him if Obama defeats Romney, say, next year. The calculus is different for Palin — somewhat. She’d be a longshot to beat Perry and Romney given their organizations and fundraising (and the support of the Republican establishment, natch), but if Perry stumbles and Bachmann continues to fade, I can imagine her winning Iowa and building momentum in South Carolina. As a third-party candidate, she’d have zero chance of winning the presidency; as a competitor for the GOP nomination she’d have a slim chance. That alone should settle the question.

On the other hand, the takeaway from her Indianola speech was her indictment of the “permanent political class,” not any affirmation that Republicans are superior to Democrats. (In fact, she never uttered the word “Republican” that day.) Between that and her rhetoric about crony capitalism, she’s slowly moving towards a more Paulian pox-on-both-their-houses approach to the parties, which is true to her roots as a reformer in Alaska. The crucial difference between her and Paul, though, is that she’s not indifferent between Obama and the potential Republican nominee; she recognizes that The One is considerably worse, and yet a third-party candidacy would put her in the awkward position of being the single biggest enabler of a second Obama term. The only way to justify an independent run under those circumstances would, I guess, be if you viewed it as some sort of essential challenge to a broken, exhausted two-party system and were willing to absorb whatever consequences flowed from that, including four more years of Hopenchange. If she and her supporters made a big enough showing and ended up splitting the conservative vote with the GOP, it’d force the Republican leadership to cater to the tea party even more in 2016. Simple question: What’s worse, another go-round with Obama or leaving our current, widely despised political system unchallenged? Hmmmm.