Now that Sarah Palin has confirmed that she won’t run for President, one interesting question is whether her exit could change the dynamic of the existing field. Even this fall, a non-trivial number of Republican voters have been telling pollsters that Palin is their choice for the GOP nomination. She drew 9% in a late September national ABC News/Washington Post poll, for instance, and has made significant showings in recent polls in New Hampshire (six percent); South Carolina (six percent) and in Iowa (four percent). So where do her voters go? Most likely, they scatter among the other candidates with solid anti-establishment Tea Party credentials. One early beneficiary is sure to be Herman Cain. The baritoned pizza mogul fares better in this week’s CBS News poll, for example, than he did in that ABC/Post poll, perhaps in part because CBS didn’t offer Palin as an option. But Cain has all the makings of a short-lived phenom, and those frustrated Palin-lovers may well be open to several other candidates. One to keep an eye on is Newt Gingrich, who has seen his own recent bump in the polls–possibly because a string of base-pleasing debate performances are helping to put the memory of his disastrous start behind him.
One place those Palin voters almost certainly won’t be going is into the Romney column. The former Massachusetts governor, who ran in 2008 and never really stopped, is a known quantity to Republicans. And it’s clear that plenty of Tea Party conservatives will never embrace him. The same probably applies to Cain’s backers, many of whom seem likely to peel off as televised debates grow less important and serious primary campaigning gets rolling. Those are reasons to think that Rick Perry is an undervalued commodity right now. The GOP is awash with restless anti-establishment conservatives looking for a home (and they’ve already abandoned Michele Bachmann). Their first introduction to Rick Perry was a lousy one. But Perry has time to learn from his mistakes and tailor a more effective pitch to the people who used to support Sarah Palin. Perry has plenty of room to grow. It’s not clear that Romney does.