Tim Pawlenty has kicked off the second half of 2011 with a statewide Iowa TV ad buy for a commercial in which the former Minnesota governor portrays himself as the scourge of state worker unions who “won” when they confronted him with demands. The ad, first reported by Politico, reflects a strategy in which Pawlenty (whom some think will be adversely affected by the current stalemate in his home state which has led to a government shutdown), doubles down on the attention given the situation in Minnesota by identifying himself with governors like New Jersey’s Chris Christie and Wisconsin’s Scott Walker.
It is an effective ad that seems to address Pawlenty’s greatest problem: even after months of campaigning, he still seems to lack a clear message or the ability to connect with key GOP constituencies. This is all the more problematic since it comes after a month in which his poor debate performance, lagging fundraising and the rise of Michele Bachmann overshadowed substantial economic and foreign policy speeches that ought to have bolstered his candidacy.
Pawlenty’s problem is examined at length by New York Times blogger Nate Silver, who aptly dubs the Minnesotan the “RC Cola candidate.” Pawlenty’s dilemma is his bland image is not merely a function of what appears to be a frustratingly bland personality. It is also the product of his own background and positions on the issues that put him pretty much smack dab in the middle of the Republican field. On a spectrum in which candidates can be defined by their identification as either insurgents or establishment types and by positions that are either moderate or conservative, Pawlenty is in the middle on both scores. Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman are both seen as establishment moderates, while Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann are viewed as insurgent conservatives. Pawlenty is between all of them.
That might be a big advantage for Pawlenty, since he can theoretically appeal to all wings of his party. This is reflected in the Minnesotan’s relatively high favorability ratings since, unlike his competitors, no GOP group views him as completely unacceptable. But his middle-of-the-road personality and politics has also led to him being overshadowed by his livelier opponents. As Silver puts it, “A lot of voters might find him acceptable — but the types of voters who find him acceptable will also tend to find a lot of other candidates acceptable.”
Like any other commodity that is unable to distinguish itself from its competition on fundamentals, Pawlenty is going to need a better marketing strategy that will lift him out of the doldrums. Silver’s point is since Pawlenty is facing well-funded opponents who have no problem being identified by the public, he runs the risk of becoming another RC Cola, a bland drink most consumers won’t reject if they are confronted with it, but something they won’t choose if they can have Coke or Pepsi.
After months of Pawlenty projecting himself as the human embodiment of “Minnesota Nice,” it’s time for the candidate to start projecting a stronger conservative and insurgent message. While Americans don’t care for extremists, his latest ad shows he may understand the only thing in the middle of the road is road kill.