Where enthusiasm and potential fundraising is concerned, Palin clearly would have had a huge edge on Santorum, giving her the opportunity to build the kind of infrastructure that he conspicuously lacked. But then again, nothing in her post-2008 career suggests an aptitude or appetite for the kind of work required to build a smooth-running (or even occasionally-misfiring) national campaign. Team First Dude and Co. would have spent much more money than Team Sweater Vest, no doubt, but whether they would have spent it wisely is another question. (Recall that Rick Perry spent a lot of money, too.)
Romney’s rival, once Palin wasn’t in the race, was supposed to be Perry. He had the right kind of credentials, he could raise money, he wasn’t obviously absurd like Bachmann or Cain (or, in a different way, Gingrich). Had he not imploded spectacularly, he clearly would have consolidated conservative support, and we would have had a two-man race. But, to my surprise, he did implode spectacularly, and almost immediately.
So the Palin counterfactual can be rephrased as: if Palin, entering instead of Perry roughly when he did, performed as atrociously in her rollout as Perry did in his – uttering gaffe after gaffe, flailing in the debates, wasting money on bizarre ads – would she also have imploded? Or would she have held onto a big chunk of the primary electorate in spite of all, enough to prevent any other alternative to Romney from emerging, and turn the primary into a Palin-Romney contest fairly early?
If you phrase it that way, it feels to me like opting for the first alternative – she would have flamed out like Perry – is another way of saying that Klein’s premise is incorrect. No, Palin doesn’t have a special bond with her supporters; she was just the vehicle of the moment, and a particularly potent one, for the moment. Had she run, and proved to be a terrible candidate – compared to Republican rivals, not compared to a hated Democrat – her supporters would have reluctantly moved on. They abandoned Herman Cain; they would have abandoned her. They might love her, but they wouldn’t want to lose with her.
I agree with Douthat that that’s the smart bet. And I suspect Palin, on some level, knows it. Entering the race would have been a test of the proposition of Palin-specialness. And Palin, in her post-2008 career, has been quite careful about avoiding such tests. There’s surely a reason for that beyond laziness.