Understanding the Palin Equation for 2012

 Sarah Palin speaks with the press outside the Liberty Bell Center as daughter Piper looks on in Philadelphia; Photo by Jeff Fusco/Getty Images

By Dante Chinni

Sarah Palin confirmed this week that her One Nation Tour would go national. “That is our plan, our tentative plan, anyway,” she told ABC News as her tour hit Liberty Island in New York.

The media have gotten use to “tentative” plans from the former Alaska governor as her tour — seemingly part American family field trip, part media sideshow — winds its way around the country. There is no announced schedule for “One Nation” and most reporters are unsure what to make of the event.

But for moment, let’s consider what might happen if Palin does announce her candidacy in the next few weeks. Many point to her polling negatives and quickly discount Palin a serious player. But Patchwork Nation is not so sure.

As we wrote a few weeks ago, the GOP electorate is very unsettled for the time being with no one candidate rising to the top. The Republican base, always somewhat split along Wall Street/Main Street/Church Street looks as though it may have especially deep divides this year. And that may serve Palin well.

Herewith, a look at what Patchwork Nation and its 12 county types can tell us about Palin’s chances and challenges in the first four big nominating contests.

Eyeing the Hawkeye State

The big kickoff to the season, the Iowa caucuses, theoretically could work out fairly well for Palin. More than a third of the state’s population lives in agricultural Tractor Country counties or aging Emptying Nests (many of which also those have strong Tractor Country components). The Pew poll we looked at in mid-May show Palin did well in the Nests – trailing only former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who has announced he is not running.

More important, both the Nests and Tractor Country have strong streaks of social conservatism, as we have noted in more in-depth reporting, that could aid her campaign. And Tim Pawlenty, the former governor of nearby Minnesota, has not caught fire in Iowa. The big challenge, of course, would be organization. It is critical in the caucuses and Palin has not been visiting Iowa, though her tour is rumored to be heading there at some point.

In other words, even with what may be a favorable electorate, there is a lot of work to be done.

Handling New Hampshire

Arguably, of all the early primary caucus states, New Hampshire presents Palin with the biggest set of challenges. Social conservatives are not a big part of the electorate in the state. The Patchwork Nation types on the New Hampshire map – the wealthy Monied Burbs, collegiate Campus and Careers, small-town Service Worker Centers and formerly growing Boom Towns – either lean left or are predominantly moderate in their politics.

Palin’s hopes here for a good showing would likely hinge with those Service Worker counties – there are three in the small state: Merrimack, Sullivan and Coos. Nationally, Palin is doing pretty well in those counties and many of them hold a kind of small-town anti-cosmopolitan cultural conservatism.

The goal for her in the Granite State would likely be doing well enough in those counties for a respectable showing.

Nevada’s Promise

If Palin is to be the outsider candidate of Republican ire at Washington, then Nevada might be circled on her calendar. The Silver State is big geographically, but most of its population resides in two Boom Town counties that have been hammered by the recession – Clark, home of Las Vegas, and Washoe, home of Reno.

Why would those places lead the Washington outrage parade? One word: housing. The housing market, recent numbers suggest, will likely still be slumping next year and beyond, and that has a special meaning in Nevada where construction is a huge part of the local economy. The state has been slammed in the foreclosure crunch.

In short, the government’s failed efforts to stabilize the housing market sting sharpest here, and that could be a big plus for an outsider candidacy like Palin’s surely would be.

South Carolina as Opportunity

Of all the early primary and caucus states though, South Carolina could be the biggest measure of Palin’s strength. The state, on paper at least, looks like the prime target for her: a mix of staunchly conservative Evangelical Epicenters and Minority Central counties. Those Minority Central communities are divided between black and white voters, but the white voters tend to be socially conservative.

And absent another big social conservative voice, Palin would be well-positioned to possibly make a statement here.

A Very Long Road

Of course, soon there very well may be another strong social conservative in the GOP field: Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann. And it’s still very early in the process. The GOP field will likely feel very different by the time the festivities begin in and the nominating contests get underway. Someone will likely emerge as the leader, and who knows what kinds of missteps the candidates could make and how the issues will change?

But looking at just this early part of the calendar, if Sarah Palin chooses to get off her tour and get on the trail, there is reason to believe she could be a serious player in the early stages of the GOP primary campaign.