Rather than obsessing over every last detail of the horse race, one should pay more attention to the fundamentals: Do voters respond favorably or unfavorably to a particular candidate? Does the candidate have enough money to pay for television when the primaries go national? Does the candidate have an actual message—an answer to the question of why he (or she!) is running for the presidency, and a realistic agenda for what he wants to do if he wins? ~Matt Continetti
Generally speaking, skeptics are right to dismiss early polls as mostly meaningless. Regardless, it seems to me that there wouldn’t be as much discussion of this if the supposed first-tier candidate Pawlenty weren’t struggling so badly. Instead of focusing on how badly Pawlenty is doing in all of the polls (and he’s doing very badly in all of them), let’s look at the fundamentals that tell us how badly Pawlenty is really doing. According to Gallup, Pawlenty’s favorability isn’t bad (66/14%), but it is a little lower than Romney and Bachmann’s favorability. The real problem is that the intensity of his support is not very great, and it has gone down as he has become better-known. Jill Lawrence’s report sums up Pawlenty’s problem:
Steve Grubbs, a former Iowa GOP chairman who was with the Steve Forbes campaign in 2000, says Pawlenty has a better organization in the state than Bachmann or another candidate with buzz, former pizza mogul Herman Cain. “Pawlenty’s biggest challenge is, he’s not creating excitement among voters. He needs to figure that out,” Grubbs says.
On the questions of money, message, and agenda, Pawlenty has likewise struggled. His economic plan has been widely panned as wishful thinking and the opposite of a realistic agenda, he has been at pains to explain why he is running, and his campaign’s fundraising hasn’t been very good. Lawrence’s report states:
Pawlenty has budgeted $1.75 million for the straw poll, according to a Republican consultant familiar with the Pawlenty campaign. That’s a major commitment, comparable to what George W. Bush and Steve Forbes spent in 1999 to place first and second ($1.1 million and $1.9 million, respectively, in today’s dollars).
The money could help, if it was there to spend. “They clearly don’t have it. So in the end I’m not sure how they’re going to implement their straw-poll strategy,” the consultant said. “I know so many of the vendors who aren’t getting paid. They are holding back so many bills.”
Lawrence goes on to question Pawlenty’s attempt to spin his poor results:
But those analogies are flawed. Clinton’s opponent, Barack Obama, “was raising huge amounts of money. He was drawing crowds that were filling massive venues very early on,” Collins recalls. As for Huckabee, he was “the only alternative on Mitt Romney’s right” in Iowa in a year with huge evangelical turnout. “I certainly wouldn’t write Pawlenty off. He’s a strong candidate. But those aren’t good templates,” Collins says.
The comparison with Huckabee is flawed, and obviously it doesn’t make sense for the decidedly uncharismatic, badly-funded Pawlenty to compare himself to the Democratic candidate who overtook his establishment rival through his personal charisma and well-funded campaign organization. When we look at the fundamentals, Pawlenty is truly in bad shape.
Pawlenty, like the proverbial five-star recruit, has a great deal of potential as a national politician, but there’s a reason his polling numbers are dismal—an explanation beyond simple lack of name recognition. In a new era where the search for authenticity dominates our political discourse, Pawlenty’s lack of it makes him a has-been before he ever was.