How much craziness will the Republican base really demand from their prospective presidential nominee?

Yesterday, Jonathan Bernstein coined the idea of the “Paul Revere Strategy.” The concept is that it often seems like the 2012 GOP hopefuls are deliberately floating truly insane ideas in order to earn Palin-like credibility with the segment of the GOP base that is willing to embrace those truly insane ideas — and only likes them more when liberals sneer at them. Judging by Sarah Palin, a key quality Republican voters are looking for in their next president is an ability to drive liberals nuts and earn liberal mockery.

I do wonder however, how much the perception of the Republican base’s irrationality is distorted by the fact that there hasn’t been any actual voting yet. We’re in a situation now where media coverage has an outsize impact on who is viewed as acceptable to the Republican base, in part because conservative media outlets like Fox News have an incredible influence on the base in terms of shaping the image of a particular candidate.

The conventional wisdom right now on the left is that due to an irrational hatred of Obama and all things liberal, the only way a Republican can win the nomination is by embracing the most extreme positions possible. Yet Mitt Romney, widely perceived as a weak frontrunner, is still polling well in primary states like South Carolina and New Hampshire (though he seems to have given up on Iowa). That’s despite his record on health reform and his refusal to embrace the absurd conservative idea that global warming is a hoax.

The Republican base has shown itself to be more practical than expected in the past. Despite Senator John McCain’s apostasies — his support for immigration reform, opposition to the Bush tax cuts, and his championing of campaign finance reform — he nevertheless ended up being the Republican standard-bearer in 2008. He wasn’t Rush Limbaugh’s preferred candidate, but when it finally came time to cast a ballot Rush had the same single vote as everyone else.

Maybe Romney is really dead in the water, and maybe Republicans will end up nominating someone based on how well they can echo the more extreme positions of the Republican base. But it may also be that the conservative media — by showering attention on the most outsized conservative figures and the most outlandish statements and positions — has created an exaggerated sense of the GOP base’s craziness. I wonder if, as in 2008, there will ultimately prove to be a bigger gap between this distorted image of the GOP base and its actual voting choices in GOP primaries than we all expect.