Could Palin run as an independent?

I wrote today’s column for The Week after Chris Christie bowed out — again — of the Republican presidential nomination sweepstakes, calling it almost the end of “the season of fantasy politics.”  Several states have hard deadlines for primary ballots this month, among them key states such as New Hampshire, Florida, and Michigan.  With only a couple of weeks left, Republicans will have to accept that the field they have now contains the choices they will have in the primary:

Can anyone else get into the race at this point? It seems very unlikely. The only potential candidate with enough name recognition and any semblance of a national organization would be Sarah Palin, and she has spoken recently of a campaign being too “shackling” for real activism. Palin hasn’t ruled it out, but the longer she waits, the less time she has to build a campaign organization that can deliver a state like Iowa, New Hampshire, or South Carolina.

At the moment, it looks as though Republicans will have to go with the field they have. That means the race to the top of the ticket will likely be fought between Romney, Perry, and the improbable longshot Herman Cain. Michele Bachmann has faded into the statistical-noise level of the polling, only besting other also-rans like Rick Santorum and Jon Huntsman by a couple of percentage points. Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul have stronger followings, but neither have given much indication of stretching their attraction beyond their loyal fans. Even absent Palin or Christie, none of these candidates have gained traction despite months on the campaign trail.

Cain caught lightning in a bottle this past week, and he will gain the most from having the window close on new entries. As Perry gets hammered on immigration, Tea Party support seems to have shifted in Cain’s direction, and he now leads or ties Perry in state and national polls. However, Cain’s fundraising hasn’t been strong; he finished Q2 with less than a half-million dollars in the bank, and his recent boost has only covered less than the last two weeks. Moreover, Cain will go on a book tour that will take him out of the key primary states for at least a couple of weeks, which won’t help his fundraising in Q4.  It may not be as curious a strategic decision as Gingrich’s two-week international cruise in May, but it will distract voters from Cain just as he’s building some needed momentum. …

That said, Romney has another big problem. According to the Boston Globe, Romney — who has never had a problem raising money — saw his donations drop off in the third quarter, perhaps down to $11 million — a drop-off of one-third since Q2. It’s an unusual sign of weakness, but it might reflect a pause from some previous donors who went shopping for a Christie candidacy over the last couple of months. Romney doesn’t have a passionate following in the Republican Party, so he has to appear invulnerable to keep his frontrunner status.

Of course, we’ve already seen Perry’s fundraising numbers, which make an even stronger case for shutting out new entrants.  If Perry can lasso this much in donations in just 49 days, that’s money that won’t be available to other candidates.

That applies to Palin, too … assuming she wants to run as a Republican.  The Hill raises a question as to whether Palin might go rogue:

There’s been some chatter this week about the possibility that former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) might run for president next year — as an independent.

The consequences for both her and the presidential race couldn’t be more profound, and there are a number of reasons why this could be a very real possibility. …

Palin has held the GOP establishment in contempt since 2008. During the 2010 elections, she regularly railed against the “GOP machine” and “good old boys,” and both she and her supporters have accused the party of trying to muzzle Palin. In fact, Palin’s embrace of the Tea Party movement has regularly been coupled with attacks on the Republican Party, and she’s often keen to note that her spirit and principles are conservative, not Republican.

In short, Palin doesn’t claim loyalty to the GOP, and in fact loathes the party establishment. There’d be no greater blow she could strike to the GOP elite than to run as an independent and siphon off votes from the Republican nominee. Party bigwigs would either fawn over her, trying to coax her out of the race, or attack her mercilessly as they try to discredit her among conservative-minded voters. Either way, Palin would once again be the center of attention.

That would solve one pressing issue: the deadlines.  Those only apply to primary candidates, not to general-election candidates, which would mean that Palin could go several more months without giving an answer as to her intentions.  That would leave her free to attack both Barack Obama and the Republican candidates from the outside while maintaining her position on Fox News, and presumably all of her other income-producing ventures.

However, it’s difficult to run as an independent, unless one has a vast personal fortune to leverage.  Ross Perot had that and didn’t win a single state in an election marked by the same kind of anti-establishment fervor we see now.  An independent has to get herself on 50 state ballots, which takes a lot of organization in terms of collecting signatures, filing paperwork, and the like, and all of that takes money — lots of it.  Ralph Nader had a significant amount of money and organizational help, and all he did was impact one state race just enough to make George W. Bush the next President.

Palin has the Tea Party grassroots, which is a considerable political force indeed.  But the Tea Party didn’t come into existence to back Palin; its main purpose was to defeat Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, and Harry Reid, and their disastrous policies.  Palin is an important leader in that movement, but it’s not a Palin movement.  If Palin launches an independent bid, the most likely outcome would be either having no impact at all, or to hand the election to Obama by splitting the vote on the Right.

How many Tea Party activists will want that outcome, or would be willing to risk it just to make a point about being anti-establishment?  Some might, and the degree to which those activists might be tempted to do so would depend on the outcome of the Republican primary, too.  However, when the dust settles next summer, Republicans and conservatives who want to see ObamaCare and Dodd-Frank repealed will know that the only path to that end will be to defeat Obama.  If Palin interferes with that, the damage to her standing will be significantly higher than she will suffer by not running at all. She needs to either get into the GOP primary or dedicate herself to activism over the next four years.

Update: It is worth noting, as commenter Steebo77 does, that Palin has often rejected calls for a third-party presidential run.