The latest Iowa poll shows Pawlenty behind Romney, Bachmann and Cain. As A.B. Stoddard points out, Pawlenty is even running behind the corpse of Newt Gingrich’s political aspirations. The early polls are lousy predictors of who will win in the end, but those same polls can give you valuable information (even if that information isn’t who is going to win in the end.) Pawlenty had been through two nationally televised debates, he has been on the interview shows, and he has campaigned in Iowa. He might be able to plausibly argue that he is behind Romney because of Romney’s name recognition from the 2008 campaign. It is tougher to argue the point that he (a two term governor of a neighboring state) is losing because he is less known that a back bench member of the House of Representatives (from his own state!) and a pizza company executive. The poll is telling us that the Iowa public is not buying what Pawlenty is selling.
I think that one can look at the nonlibertarian fraction of the Republican nominating electorate as being split into two groups. One group are people who primarily value conservative authenticity but also want competence, and the second group are people who want conservative-tinged governing competence with an emphasis on the competence. Henry Olsen’s description of the differences between “dispositional” and “ideological” conservatives captures some of what is going on, but there is more to it than ideology and policy preference. It is also about character. For the authenticity-oriented group it isn’t just about the proposals on your website. It is also about whether you can be trusted not to fold during the campaign and afterward. Are you one of us?
Bachmann is currently cleaning up among the authenticity-first group. A big reason why is because she seems at least as authentic as Herman Cain and much better informed. Romney is dominating among the second group. As an evangelical Christian, strongly pro-life, budget cutting, two term governor of a Democratic-leaning Midwestern state, Pawlenty should be able to win some support from both groups. Instead, he is getting traction nowhere. His attempts to demonstrate populist authenticity in his two CPAC speeches were cartoonishly inauthentic. It is tough to come across as competent in the Republican nominating race if you can’t clearly and forthrightly criticize Romneycare from the right.
I still wouldn’t say that Pawlenty is doomed. There was a time when John Kerry was down in Al Sharpton territory in the 2004 Democratic presidential race and he came back not only to win the nomination, but to come fairly close to being elected President. I saw last night on the FoxNews Special Report show that Pawlenty plans on spending some large fraction of July in Iowa. He seems to be shifting to something like John Kerry’s 2004 Iowa or bust strategy. If Bachmann wins Iowa and Romney’s poll ratings haven’t collapsed, it is tough to see how Pawlenty gets anywhere in this race. He has to stop the race from turning into a two-person populist vs. establishment race between Bachmann and Romney. The way the race is shaping up (and other entrants or candidate self-immolations can change that shape), he has to beat Bachmann in Iowa and hope that slingshots him into the role of the main anti-Romney. His strategy would have to look something like this:
1. Concentrate resources and candidate time in Iowa. This is a good time to show executive competence. Build personal contacts with as many voters as possible. Even if they don’t decide that they are going to vote for you now, even if the Iowa polls don’t shift now or next month, build good will so that there is a large group with pleasant memories of you if and when the spotlight and the narrative shifts in a pro-Pawlenty direction.
2. Hope that your campaign hits a groove at the right time. Kerry was looking pretty bad in the summer of 2003, but he was looking pretty good in January 2oo4 (though most of the national media didn’t notice until the night of the Caucuses.)
3. Hope the mood of the electorate shifts. Something like that happened in 2004 and that sentiment is captured in the saying “Dated Dean, Married Kerry.” Much of this happened before the famous Dean Scream.
4. Hope that Bachmann stumbles and her supporters go to you as the Romney alternative.
A big problem with this strategy is that its success depends on a bunch of hopes coming through - and hope is not an ideal strategy. Still, this strategy would leave Pawlenty well prepared if fortune favored him, and stranger things have happened.
Warning: Things change if Perry enters the race.