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2012: How Sarah Barracuda Becomes President

Assuming that Palin were the nominee, just how much further would Obama have to slip for that to happen? Not long ago, I asked a person close to Bloomberg, who said that if the president’s approval rating fell into the thirties, diving in might be irresistible to the mayor. But what if it was at, say, 42 percent—four points below its current level, according to the Gallup tracking poll? “Forty-two?” this person pondered, and then smiled impishly. “That might get him in there, too.”

What would then transpire? To get Rumsfeldian for a sec, the combination of known unknowns and unknown unknowns is enough to make your head spin. But there are also a handful of known knowns: that Bloomberg’s team, probably led by Sheekey and Wolfson, would be as tough, savvy, and technologically sophisticated as any ever assembled; that the mayor, regardless of being on the ballot in 50 states, would target more like half of them where his prospects were brightest; and that he would spend more than $1 billion and maybe upward of $3 billion.

One scenario, most likely if the economy suffers a double-dip recession, is that the nation would be so desperate for capable economic management that Bloomberg would be able to overcome his vulnerabilities—his short-Jewish-unmarried-plutocratness—and find himself deposited in the Oval Office.

Another scenario, the likeliest, is that Bloomberg’s entry would secure the reelection of Obama. “There’s enough solid Republicans that even Palin gets between 26 and 30 percent of the vote,” forecasts Dowd. “And there’s enough solid Democrats that, depending on the economy, Obama gets 40 to 42 percent. That leaves Bloomberg with between 28 and 34 percent, which just isn’t enough.”

But there is a third scenario, one that involves a more granular kind of analysis-cum-speculation. By the accounts of strategists in both parties, Bloomberg—especially with the help of his billions—would stand a reasonable chance of carrying New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Florida, and California. Combine that with a strong-enough showing in a few other places in the industrial Northeast to deny Obama those states, and with Palin holding the fire-engine-red states of the South, and the president might find himself short of the 270 electoral votes necessary to win.

Assuming you still remember the basics from American Government 101, you know what would happen next: The election would be thrown to the House of Representatives—which, after November 2, is likely to be controlled by the Republicans. The result: Hello, President Palin!

Now, if you happen to be a Democrat, your first instinct might be to dismiss all of this as a dystopian anti-fantasy, or the kind of spook story told around a campfire, scary but ultimately harmless because it’s make-believe, or maybe the ravings of a madman. (I wouldn’t argue with that last one.) Certainly, it qualifies as far-fetched.

But, then, everything about Palin’s story is far-fetched: McCain’s selection of her as his running mate, her ascension after abruptly quitting the highest post she’d ever held, her status as one of the front-runners for her party’s presidential nomination. But here she is, a phenomenon nearly—nearly—unprecedented in modern politics, a figure so electrifying to the most hopped-up segment of her party that at times she seems unstoppable.

“She’s a supernova,” says McKinnon. “The only parallel is Barack Obama. And look what happened to him.”