President Sarah Palin. To many pundits and late-night comedians, this sounds like a punch line, and to many die-hard Democrats it sounds like a reason to leave the country.
Yet while the conventional wisdom has it that Palin is too badly damaged to make a serious run in 2012 — and I agree that her success is not probable — it is definitely a possibility that Palin could be elected president of the United States.
Those having concerns about my objectivity or wondering whether I am a "Palinista" should keep in mind that I raised serious questions about her qualifications last fall — doubts I still have — and that I predicted John McCain would look back at his vice presidential pick with remorse.
Looking ahead to the political landscape of the 2012 presidential election, there are certain elements to keep in mind, assuming that President Barack Obama runs for re-election.
First, Gallup polls over the past 60 years show that no president with an approval rating under 47 percent has won re-election, and no president with an approval rating above 51 percent has lost re-election. (George W. Bush's approval rating in the weeks before the 2004 election hovered around 50 percent.)
The 2012 election will be primarily about our current president and whether voters are satisfied with the country's direction.
Who the Republican candidate is, and his or her qualifications and abilities, will matter only if Obama's approval rating is between 47 and 51 percent going into the fall of 2012. Interestingly, in the latest Gallup poll Obama's approval rating was at a precarious 49 percent.
Second, America is still (unfortunately) politically divided and polarized, and Palin benefits from this dynamic. While Democrats love Obama, Republicans look on him with real disfavor. The gap between Obama's approval rating among Democrats and among Republicans is nearly 70 percentage points — a higher partisan divide than either Bill Clinton or George W. Bush experienced. Obama's agenda and actions this year, and some mistakes, have solidified this divide.
Polls show that Palin's favorability numbers are a mirror image of those of Obama. She is respected and loved by the Republican base, while Democrats despise her. Granted, independent voters have significant reservations about her capability to be president, and this would be a hurdle in the general election. But to win the Republican nomination, Palin needs only to get enough support from the base to win early key states. Already, in nearly every poll today, she has a level of support that makes her a viable primary candidate. Just look at the crowds and the buzz her book tour is drawing.
While today I would not support a Palin candidacy, here are five suggestions that would go a long way toward winning her more converts:
• Quality over quantity. You don't need to "tweet" quite so much. You don't need to be at countless rallies and photo ops. Instead, seek out substantive platforms where you can relate to people in a thoughtful, measured way. Appear on Sunday shows every now and then, sit down with Charlie Rose and editorial boards, and give serious speeches on your approach to the world in the 21st century.
• Hope and fear. To be elected president, a candidate has to understand voters' fears but appeal to their hopes. Ronald Reagan (and Bill Clinton) knew this very well. To do this more comprehensively, I would suggest traveling more to better get a handle on where the voters are on topics related to finances, faith, race, etc. Get out of the bubble of high-profile events. Go to the inner cities, the suburbs and small towns where folks are trying to live their lives through great anxiety. And don't go to talk about yourself, but to listen to others.
• Reagan is the past. While Reagan is a beloved president who did much for this country, folks want to look to the future and believe in a new brand of leader. Espousing the values Reagan spoke to and represented is fine, but you need to be yourself, not an acolyte for a president who is now in the history books.
• Use humor. In responding to controversy, bad press and negative occurrences in general, learn to let it slide off of you with a knowing smile. Maybe even use some self-deprecation. Levi Johnston, your almost son-in-law, has been a thorn in your side. Let it go. Publicly sparring with a teen-ager is not presidential. Don't be afraid to make fun of yourself. Voters like candidates who know that they aren't perfect and can laugh at themselves.
• Think accountability. Yes, bad things happen to good people, and it isn't fair. But voters don't want to hear all the excuses of why an interview didn't go well or which other person was responsible for a bad decision. Americans want presidents who accept blame when things go wrong. They are tired of their leaders and institutions not admitting mistakes, learning from errors and making improvements.
Like it or not, if Sarah Palin decides to seek our nation's highest office, she has a shot. The probability of her success depends on her ability, and that of President Obama, to admit and learn from their mistakes as we head into 2012.
Matthew Dowd, a political analyst for ABC News, was the chief strategist for George W. Bush's 2004 presidential campaign.