Jill Lawrence repeats one of my least favorite claims about the 2012 election:
Pawlenty bet his campaign on the August 2011 Iowa straw poll, only to come in a distant third — behind Reps. Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul – and drop out the next day. If he had skipped the straw poll, he might have gone all the way to the nomination or the White House.
As Bernstein notes, this gets things backwards. Pawlenty’s failure in the straw poll confirmed the underlying weakness and failures of his campaign. As the former governor of a neighboring state and 2012’s Huckabee imitator wannabe, he had made Iowa the centerpiece of his campaign. His fundraising throughout the year prior to the straw poll had been quite poor (especially for a so-called “top tier” candidate), and in the absence of some evidence that Pawlenty was competitive and gaining ground it would have likely dried up anyway. Pawlenty needed to compete in the straw poll to give his donors a reason to keep backing him. Skipping the straw poll wouldn’t have saved his campaign or enabled him to go on to win the nomination. It would have simply delayed Pawlenty’s withdrawal from the race.
Someone may point to Santorum’s late surge in Iowa as proof that Pawlenty could have done the same if he had just stayed in long enough, but this overlooks a few things. Santorum had relocated to Iowa for almost all of 2011 and didn’t even try to campaign in later primary states. Pawlenty’s problem all along was to make the mistake of accepting the idea that he was a major contender right from the beginning, and so he spread his already limited resources thin in several different states. He organized his campaign as if he were the party’s consensus candidate that he pretended to be instead of the insurgent candidate that he was. That put him in the absurd position of leaving the anti-Romney voters to the other candidates while vainly trying to peel off Romney voters that didn’t have strong objections to Romney.
Perversely, Santorum benefited from being ignored all year long, since it allowed him to avoid scrutiny, attacks, and negative coverage, while Pawlenty suffered from being treated as the obvious alternative to Romney right from the start. On top of all of this, Santorum was simply a better retail campaigner and a better debater than Pawlenty, and these qualities eventually paid off for him. The idea that Pawlenty could have gone on to the nomination if not for the Ames straw poll is flattering to Pawlenty, but it isn’t true. The main reason that it keeps circulating is that it serves as a useful excuse to justify ending the straw poll.