Tim Pawlenty is rolling out what can be described as the Pawlenty Campaign 2.0–the scrappy underdog swimming against the tide of his rivals’ money and organization. It’s all about managing expectations and clearing low bars.
He’s even got the New York Times and Politico running stories on it, with Politico’s a mostly positive review of the strategy. The problem for Pawlenty is that this is a terrible idea, for three main reasons.
First, as the Times story notes up front, Pawlenty began this campaign “actively positioning himself as the No. 2 heavyweight in the Republican presidential race of 2012 and the obvious alternative to the front-runner, Mitt Romney.” So what changed in that time? Technically speaking, nothing. That is, we are still half a year away from the first caucus of the primary season.
The only thing that has happened so far is primary voters have looked at the candidates and decided they don’t much care for Pawlenty. Running as the underdog in a campaign is a last resort. Billing yourself as the mainstream candidate and then switching to the underdog before the primaries have even begun is a sign of desperation. Looking desperate for six months before voters have the chance to cast a ballot will cement that image in their minds. And voters don’t ask that guy to be the leader of the free world.
Second, the underdog status only fires up a candidate’s base of support, it does not convince others to vote for him. Frankly speaking, Pawlenty has almost no base of support to fire up. By definition, the underdog has only an outside chance of winning. Admitting you’re that guy signals voters to look elsewhere.
And third, not all the candidates are even in the race yet. If Pawlenty is the underdog now, just imagine how much tougher his road becomes in Iowa if Rick Perry gets in the race, and in New Hampshire if Giuliani jumps in. Following those, his chances in Nevada are slim to none against Romney (and Huntsman), and then in South Carolina, where he would in all likelihood finish behind Bachmann, Perry, and possibly even Rick Santorum. In that scenario, he could be done by February.
Remember, the Obama campaign’s strategy against Hillary Clinton was to convince voters that she wasn’t inevitable and that perhaps this was his time, not hers. And McCain may have made a comeback, but he was the runner-up to Bush in 2000. That means he was the “next in line” for eight years. It was his nomination to lose, and he didn’t.
The only viable strategy for Pawlenty was to convince moderate Republicans he was more electable than Romney because of the health-care issue, and convince core conservatives he was more electable than the sometimes-reckless Bachmann. Abandoning that strategy means abandoning that argument and the principal rationalization of his candidacy.