A Pawlenty presidency likely will never come

Former Gov. Tim Pawlenty dropped out of the race for president earlier this month. He always looked good on paper, but as they say in sports, that’s why you play the game. Both his bid and exit provide some insight into modern presidential politics.

First, Pawlenty has to consider himself one of the most unlucky contenders of recent years. Three years ago he seemed poised to become John McCain’s vice-presidential candidate. Instead, McCain surprised just about everyone by selecting then little-known Alaskan Gov. Sarah Palin. We all know what that selection did for her national profile. Granted, Pawlenty would not have created the same stir as Palin did, but it would have provided him with greater national name recognition and probably catapulted him to the forefront of the Republican candidates along with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.  

Secondly, Pawlenty, had to square off against a fellow Minnesotan, U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann. There isn’t any real reason that two Minnesota Republicans couldn't both seriously vie for the nomination. However, there seemed to be a perception that the stage was only big enough for one of them, and much of the narrative was pitched as Pawlenty vs. Bachmann. Pawlenty’s attacks on Bachmann had a counterproductive effect. They seemed to weaken him while making her candidacy stronger. She overshadowed Pawlenty and he struggled to emerge from that shadow.  

Thirdly, Pawlenty had a serious problem in defining himself. He was neither the frontrunner nor the idealistic underdog — rather the man who was often seen as personifying the "Sam’s Club Republican" and was supposed to make serious noise in this race seemed in search of a niche or persona.

I thought his video ads that launched his campaign were outstanding, but he was unable to translate them into support. All politicians who run for national office pander to voters. Part of the trick, however, is to seem like they are not. Pawlenty never seemed to master that art and come across as authentic (while running for president). That, in large part I believe, is why he did not connect with Republican voters.


Some of his missteps included clumsily adopting a faux accent, fumbling the exchange with Romney in New Hampshire and bickering with Bachmann.

I did not think Pawlenty was going to win the nomination in 2012, but I believed that a strong showing would help position him for a 2016 bid if that possibility presented itself. The Republican Party has, for the past four decades, chosen the "runner up" from the previous primary for their next nominee. Here is a list of second-place finishers dating back to the mid 1970s: Ronald Reagan in 1976, George H.W. Bush in 1980, Bob Dole in 1988, and John McCain in 2000.

In each case, the man who did not win in the year listed above was the presumptive frontrunner the next time and won that race.  It appears that success in primary races requires a candidate to finish second in the election before and assume the mantle of frontrunner, or exceed expectations early on and be given a boost that way. These are the two avenues that Romney and Bachmann have taken to their current positions. (Ron Paul has been conspicuously excluded from conversations about frontrunners, though he finished second in the Iowa Straw Poll.)

What does all of this mean in forecasting who will win the Republican nomination? Romney, by virtue of finishing behind McCain in 2008, has history on his side. The recent entry of Rick Perry  makes things interesting. I do not know what sort of "treasure chest" he brings to the campaign, but he is known as a deft fundraiser. So far, Romney has had a huge advantage in fundraising. The amount of money raised is the best predicting factor in who will win the primaries. Unless things turn against Romney in that department, I expect him to win when the dust settles next year.  

Today, losing a presidential race is more or less a dead end to ever achieving that position. Gone are the days for instance when someone like Adlai Stevenson could lose the 1952 presidential race to Dwight Eisenhower, return to get beat even worse in 1956, and still be considered a serious candidate in 1960.

I think 2012 was the race in which Pawlenty had to make headway and rise to the upper echelon of national Republican politics. Because he did not, I see another presidential bid unlikely. However, I think his political career is far from over. I strongly believe that he will launch a bid for U.S. Senate and target the seat held by Al Franken.

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