Since making wild predictions about an election four years from now is so in vogue-- even though the one five days from now is still anyone's game-- here's my extremely dubious prediction about 2012.
Sarah Palin wins a long and contentious GOP primary over Mike Huckabee. She initially asks Bobby Jindal to be her running mate, but Jindal, being no fool, recognizes a sinking ship when he sees it and begs off due to the pressure it would put on his family. Palin ultimately taps Connecticut Governor Jodi Rell, who has been working tirelessly from 2010 on to position herself more in line with conservative orthodoxy, and to burnish her Republican credentials. Her selection opens the door to a reinvigoration of the Republican brand in the Northeast and is a play to precisely the kind of moderates that Palin alienates. The two-women ticket is perceived as exactly the kind of huge gamble needed to unseat a popular incumbent. The failure to select Huckabee, however, causes dissent among much of the Republican rank and file.
Palin, correctly perceiving her campaign as a dark horse prospect, goes negative from the get-go, doubling down on the culture war mojo she displayed in the 2008 campaign. The Republican base loves her, and her rallies begin to be staffed with more and more security, as the attendees have become very difficult to rein in. She scores some early points with her aggressive demeanor and a slash-and-burn rhetorical style. Rell meanwhile works quietly in the Northeast and Rust Belt, reaching out to women voters and Reagan Democrats. Palin is also scoring points in unexpected places by proposing that the US finally withdraw from Afghanistan, which President Obama and his cabinet are reluctant to do. While liberals won't vote for Palin, many lack the enthusiasm for Obama they felt in 2008, due to his failure to pass real comprehensive health care legislation, and the three long years we remained in Iraq following his election. Pundits on TV talk excitedly about an expanded map to GOP victory. Florida seems in genuine danger of turning back to Red after a one-election blue turn. California shows a little Republican friskiness, thanks to Arnold's campaigning, but shows little real chances of flipping to the Republicans.
Ultimately, however, Palin's divisive style wounds her campaign as much as helps it. She is still too unpopular in the eyes of many secular independents (a growing constituency) and non-white or non-Christian centrists. The Republican apparatus is still distrustful of her, and many of the Republican apparatchiks any campaign needs to win still blame her for the failure of 2008. President Obama wins the endorsement of many moderate Republicans, and enjoys the popularity that comes with a stabilized but not resurgent economy. Whats more, the "can you trust this man" narrative that the GOP pushed so relentlessly in 2008 has been utterly undone by 4 years of steady (if not inspiring) leadership. Many of the people who once regarded Obama with suspicion, in fact, now look on him quite favorably; he is calming and pleasant to them, and his presidency helps assuage some of their discomfort at questions of race. To the dismay of both Bushite Republicans and liberals, Obama has revealed himself to be exactly the kind of earnest, affable moderate neither side wished him to be. Heading into October, he enjoys a double digit lead.
Then, on the anniversary of one of the 2008 Presidential debates, what pundits call the most devastating endorsement in Presidential history is announced: John McCain is coming out with his support for Barack Obama. He gives a speech in that irascible style of his, talking about his old rival and great friend Barack. It's the perfect turn for him; it satisfies all the narratives about himself that he enjoys. Having retired from the Senate in 2010, it's to be his last major appearance on the national stage. In his mind, and the mind of the media, it cements for once and all his maverick credentials, and proves that he was always his own man. And, best of all, it's one last kick in the pants to Sarah Palin, the disloyal phony who slit his throat in the press mere weeks after their defeat.
Democrats who loudly derided him four years earlier get a little choked up at his announcement. They say they always knew he was a better man than he showed in 2008. The press laps the story up, they live for this sort of thing. He's feted on all the political shows on cable; he makes the front page of Newsweek one last time. People talk about him again with reverence and respect. They say "there's a man who'll take on his party," and remark that, for him, it really is all about country first. His remarks about steady leadership and the need to move past partisanship strike exactly the right notes, in a way he was congenitally unable to do in his own campaign. As he stands on the stage, hearing the roar of the crowd, sealing Obama's reelection, a twinkle lights in his eye. The old maverick flyboy had done it again.