Tuesday, June 7, 2011

How Much Has Sarah Palin Hurt Michele Bachmann's Campaign?

According to conventional wisdom, there's only enough room for either Sarah Palin or Michele Bachmann in the 2012 Republican primary, but not both of them. The thinking goes that they're both very conservative women who appeal to the Tea Party but no one else. If both ran, they would split each others' votes. Sometimes the conventional wisdom is wrong. In this case, however, it is correct. As we have observed previously, Bachmann planned to get into the race only after determining that Palin would not run; Palin did not announce either way; Bachmann was stuck on the sidelines; Herman Cain took advantage of the vacuum. Bachmann was then forced to accept an invitation to a primary debate without first hearing Palin's decision.

Palin has still not announced whether she will run for president in 2012. Instead, she made a very highly-publicized tour of the northeast in early June. For some, this heightened speculation that she would run. But the fact that Fox News condoned the tour by not dropping her contract suggests that it was never a prelude to a run. As a result, others speculated that Palin had discreetly informed Fox News that she will not be running.

In one sense, it doesn't matter whose speculations are correct. As long as Palin stays out of the race without declaring her intention one way or the other, she will consume media time and get attention that would otherwise go to others, including Bachmann. Though some of Palin's fans have moved on to candidates who are in the race, many Palin supporters are absolutely convinced that she will run. Until she says otherwise, they will not be joining the Bachmann camp.

The conventional wisdom that Palin would split Bachmann's support is even more correct than most pundits realized: Even from outside of the race, Palin is still splitting Bachmann's support. Meanwhile, Cain has taken full advantage of the absence of Bachmann and Palin to build up his own Tea Party base. Before the May 5th debate, Cain was largely unknown, even to many Tea Partiers. Bachmann would have started out with an advantage. Now it is Bachmann who must make up for lost time, all while Palin continues to cast a shadow over the race.

One might be inclined to ask why Palin is doing this. If she does want to run, why would she take so long in saying so--even to the point of causing Bachmann to get into the race? After all, if Palin had declared by now, Bachmann would have declined to run. By delaying, Palin is allowing another candidate to get into the race, splitting her support. The fact that Palin has made no moves to keep Bachmann out of the race is the best evidence that she has no intention of running. Palin's supporters are quick to say that she is special and doesn't have to play by the normal rules. But just because she doesn't have to do something doesn't mean it makes sense for her not to do it.

If Palin doesn't want to run, why not say so and let Bachmann go forward? If they are so similar, why wouldn't Palin want to help Bachmann instead of hurting her? One possibility is that Palin is acting in her own best interest without regard to Bachmann. It may hurt Bachmann for Palin to get publicity, but it helps Palin. The other possibility is that Palin actually wants to harm Bachmann's chances. If Palin doesn't run, it's because she knows she can't win. Seeing Bachmann--whom Palin may view as a lesser version of herself--go on and win the race would be deeply embarrassing, and make Palin regret her own decision not to run. Additionally, Palin wants to be seen as the most prominent woman in the Tea Party movement.

Though Palin may see Bachmann as a representative of herself in the race, Elephant Watcher would not be surprised to see Palin work against her. If so, Palin may eventually support Cain, handing him the mantle of the Tea Party movement. On the other hand, Palin may stick with her pattern of endorsing "mama grizzlies," and endorse Bachmann--only when it's clear Bachmann can't win and replace her.