Sarah Palin's PAC disclosure release has occasioned a new round of "Will she or won't she?" If we take the dictum that one's judgment is more easily interrogated than one's motivation, we're left with a simple answer: she's seriously thinking about running for president. That's because she's said she's seriously thinking about running for president. From there, we can ask a better question: given what Palin has been doing, are her preparations for a 2012 race likely to serve her well? Or are they likely to hurt her chances?
What Palin Has Been Doing
1. She's been building the foundation for an online, grassroots-oriented national campaign. Her team won't disclose the size of her Sarah PAC list, but it's probably quite robust, even if it is padded by the mere curious. Her primary means of communication is via Facebook and Twitter, ways of bypassing the media filter, of course, but also of directly communicating with the cohort of Republican activists she'll need to execute the type of campaign she's creating.
2. She's been traveling and meeting many, many Republicans across many states. This is obvious; she gives speeches, she shakes hands. But many, many more potential voters have some personal connection with her now than they did at the end of the 2008 campaign.
3. She's brand-testing. The "Mama Grizzlies" web video is all about putting Palin's stamp on an idea: that conservative women are fired up and ready to go and are the main force multipliers of the Tea Party movement. Palin will need to use her gender to attract women to the cause of declaring independence from the old GOP patriarchy in much the same way that Hillary Clinton sold her ability to be the first viable woman presidential candidate. And then there are the audiences she chooses to speak to -- NRA conventions, pro-life conventions, bowling conventions, beer and wholesaler associations -- which begin to fill in a picture of what a Palin cloth-coat coalition might look like.
4. She's keeping her distance from Republicans in power.
5. She's made strategic endorsements in Iowa, South Carolina, Nevada, and California.
What Palin Hasn't Been Doing
1. She hasn't been recruiting fundraisers, or staff members, or activists. Her inner circle could fit in a Federation runabout. A successful presidential candidate needs fundraisers, staffers, and activists. Then again, Barack Obama had almost no one manning his presidential aspirations at this point in 2006 even as his opponents prepared conventional campaigns. While Mitt Romney makes strategic endorsements in every state and Tim Pawlenty has created PACs to help candidates in Iowa and New Hampshire, Palin is not establishing the relationships she would need to establish in order to build political campaigns in these early states. That means that she might be attempting a different type of campaign, or that she has been given bad advice, or that she won't run at all.
2. She hasn't been extending her brand. Republicans believe that Palin lacks the substantive chops to be president. This is not a creation of the lamestream media, even though the media's 2008 coverage may have amplified those doubts. Palin's friends who regularly Tweet about her doings seem to dismiss these complaints (that she isn't smart enough, isn't ready, isn't developing policy chops) as stupid and uninformed. That said, given that independents' central issue with Obama will be his failure to fix the economy, it is significant that other Republican presidential aspirants are preparing to run on competence -- and Palin is not.
So How Should We Determine Whether Palin Could Make a Viable Candidate?
1. Post-announcement polls will mark her ceiling of support, so we must wait for the day she decides to announce.
2. Can she survive a month of campaigning in Iowa? Already, some wags compare Palin to Rudy Giuliani -- she breezes in on her schedule, doesn't bother with local customs, and does her own thing, aloof to local media and consequences. It is hard to know, at this point, whether Palin could win the nomination if she plans to win or place in Iowa, even assuming she has South Carolina in the bag because of her Nikki Haley endorsement (a big assumption). Unlike Giuliani, Palin doesn't have a strong chance to win in New Hampshire.
The upshot for political pundits is that as much as we want to predict whether Palin will run, or whether she'll be viable when she runs, we don't have the data and probably won't until events start to happen.