After Tuesday night, it should be plainly obvious to anyone even barely paying attention to the 11th season that ABC and "Dancing With the Stars" have -- for want of a better phrase -- a "Bristol problem."
Thanks due -- or blame due -- to millions of voters who have maximized (critics would say exploited) ABC's various voting methods, Palin has catapulted past superior dancers to within reach of the brass ring.
Why is this a "problem"?
A couple reasons -- ABC, the BBC (which owns the show) and "DWTS" have long attempted to remove any taint that this is somehow a popularity contest, instead of a talent contest, and until now that has generally been the case. Some minor exceptions -- no reason to go over those here and now.
But the show -- though long well aware that its viewer base primarily comprises GOP viewers -- never remotely thought it would become a referendum on national politics, or the Tea Party or its most visible patron, Sarah Palin.
Yet, in fact, it has.
To a certain extent, ABC knew exactly what it was doing -- getting the daughter of a dynamic and controversial political figurehead ("leader" is too strong a word at this point) knowing full well that the daughter would perhaps in time become a stand-in for the mother.
Palin, as a result, has been pushed along by a tide of viewers' votes that arrive via text messages, the network's website, phones and cell phones. Depending on the number of e-mails a voter has, someone could easily cast dozens of votes for one contestant.
Is this fair? Sure. The rules are the rules, and as "American Idol" has learned, ballot-stuffing is impossible to stop (with the exception of computer-generated votes, which are apparently easy to identify) and an entertainment show probabably doens't want to get in the business of telling viewers that they can't do something. This is supposed to be entertainment -- not a vote for public office.
But the danger for ABC and "DWTS" is this: If Palin loses, her fans will demand that the votes be revealed, or will question the fairness of the judges' final tally.
But if Palin wins, "Dancing With the Stars" has turned, finally, into something entirely different, and categorically worse -- a political referendum of sorts.
So, to my final question: Can she win?
I think -- emphasis on "think" -- that it is impossible, depending on how ABC and "DWTS" structure the final nights. Recall that last year, the finalist dances were split into two nights, and viewers got to vote on the first night only. The judges cast their votes for the final two dances -- with no viewer tally.
How will ABC/"DWTS" structure next week? I'm not sure yet; a winner is announced in the Tuesday 9 to 11 p.m. finale, and if two dances are judged during that night, a Palin victory is probably out of reach.
Again, that's a maybe. But I've done the math (to the best of my limited abilities) and there is a way to victory -- that will almost certainly stop, however, next week because the judges get the final say.