Sarah Palin Will Run, But She’s Not Ready: Mark McKinnon on 2012

The fundraising, the Mama Grizzlies, Bristol’s reunion with Levi—it all points to a Palin presidential run in 2012. But she isn’t ready—and a loss could be disastrous for the GOP.

Erik S. Lesser / AP Photo

See Sarah run.

This one is different than the others. Sounds different, looks different. This one inspires deep loyalty, and deep fear. Short on experience but untainted by Washington, this one is in touch with the people.

Two years out from the 2008 presidential election, these words described Barack Obama. But that was then.

If Palin runs, wins the nomination and then loses the general election, she could leave the Republican brand in pieces.

This is now. And it just as accurately describes Sarah Palin.

And it's looking more likely that she's going to run for president. Which would be the answer to Obama's electoral prayers.

I've written before that if Palin is smarter than she is ambitious, she will not run in 2012. She has fame, fortune, and multiple platforms to leverage for years to come. Those opportunities are likely to be diminished if she runs.

Palin could win the nomination. But she cannot win the general election.

Peter Beinart: The GOP’s Jesus Litmus Test Beyond ambition, there are laws of physics at work here. Once an object is set in motion, it tends to stay in motion along the same path. With the avalanche of money and media attention chasing this Wasilla warrior's snow machine, the process makes it inevitably very difficult to stop and say no. Or as James Carville once said, running for president is like sex. After you do it once, it's hard to stop.

The clear signals that she means business for 2012:

The Money: Sarah Palin's political action committee collected $865,800 in contributions for the second quarter of this year, more than in any previous three-month period. As of June 30, SarahPAC had more than $1 million cash on hand. Beyond the $87,500 contributed to conservative candidates, the committee also spent nearly twice as much as it had previously on list-building and direct mail. The move from online fundraising only, where she has garnered a remarkably high percentage of donations under $200, to slick direct-mail solicitations shows a ramping up for things to come. Though she does not yet have a backroom machine like Gov. Mitt Romney, the addition of political staff hints at a coalescing campaign organization.

The Media: The elephant in the room is impossible to ignore. Though the national media may bray and belittle her, they continue to pay attention to her. Some praise is begrudgingly bestowed. Chuck Todd marvels: " is amazing the ability this woman has to get media attention with as little as she does, whether it's a Twitter or a Facebook update..." Even Kathleen Parker, who declared Palin "Clearly Out of Her League," now sees Sarah as "a genius," noting, "This woman is not to be feared or loathed... she's a public-relations machine who manipulates public perception with well-timed and, recently, sophisticated messaging." Whether driven by jealousy or pure capitalism, media coverage of Palin continues, and it helps sell magazines and generate clicks. (Just wait for the cavalcade of cover stories to come on daughter Bristol's re-engagement to Levi Johnston. The franchise grows.)

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The Mamas: An endorsement from Sarah is second-to-none. The coveted mantle of Mama Grizzly has been shared with a growing list of candidates, men and women alike. Her latest endorsements include Karen Handel for Georgia governor, Ann Marie Buerkle for New York's 25th District, CeCe Heil for Tennessee's 5th, and Rep. Todd Tiahrt from Kansas for senator. The former governor of Alaska has awakened an enviable constituency no other Republican leader has: conservative mamas and papas. The newly released SarahPAC video, with already over 368,000 views, is not slick but very well done, in part because it's not highly produced. It's rough documentary feel oozes authenticity—what voters are craving right now.

The Momentum: I spent a good deal of time around Ann Richards as she was deciding whether to run for governor of Texas. After her keynote speech at the Democratic convention, momentum began to build for her to run. And while I never felt that she resolved the issue completely for herself, at a certain point it seemed that she just couldn't say no due to the centrifugal forces of expectation among women, labor, migrant workers in the Rio Grande Valley, and others—a myriad of constituencies who were counting on her to run. She didn't want to let them down. I suspect as much will be true for Palin.

The Maker: Palin has often said she gets guidance from above, that God "opens doors" for her to walk through. I suspect she'll soon be knocking hard enough that he'll hear her.

No stranger to risk, having risen to rock-star fame along a most unlikely trajectory, Palin will weigh her options.

If she runs and loses the Republican nomination, her opportunity to influence the future is diminished. While she could follow a Reagan-like path and compete again, her loss would create a perilous split in the Republican Party. If her fervent fans refuse to support the nominee (think of Hillary Clinton voters' angst times 10), chances of a Democratic victory in 2012 and beyond could improve significantly.

If Palin runs, wins the nomination and then loses the general election, she could leave the Republican brand in pieces. Intra-party cannibalization will commence. Polarization will hit new levels. And divisions in the country will likely worsen, not heal.

Or she could wait another cycle. But wield enormous influence in 2012, be a huge player in the nomination process and enhance her power and prestige and broaden her burgeoning platform. That would be smart.

Palin isn't ready to run. And the country isn't ready for her to run.

But that's unlikely to stop her now. The physics are in motion.

As vice chairman of Public Strategies and president of Maverick Media, Mark McKinnon has helped meet strategic challenges for candidates, corporations and causes, including George W. Bush, John McCain, Governor Ann Richards, Charlie Wilson, Lance Armstrong, and Bono.