Jonathan Bernstein makes an interesting comparison between Tim Pawlenty and Michael Dukakis (via Andrew), and he doesn’t intend it as an insult. On the contrary, Bernstein sees Pawlenty as the Republican candidate doing all of the necessary things to win the nomination, and he thinks the polling is as misleading for Pawlenty as it was for Dukakis at this stage. I don’t find this terribly persuasive.
What Bernstein doesn’t address in his post is that several Democratic nominees have come out of that party’s very different modern nominating process after starting their campaigns with very weak polling. According to the data Bernstein cites, Jimmy Carter was polling about as well at this point in 1975 as Herman Cain is right now. While they both happen to be from Georgia, I would not be willing to argue that Herman Cain is the Jimmy Carter of 2012. More important, according to the same data, no early polling on the Republican side has ever found an eventual nominee in the single digits at this point. Indeed, the only time in the last several open races that the eventual nominee wasn’t in first place in early polling was in 2007 when the absurd, media-driven candidacy of Rudi Giuliani was still taken seriously. Republicans have no habit of nominating candidates with poor name recognition on their first attempt in the modern primary process. Put another way, if someone polling as poorly as Dukakis in 1987 had been running on the Republican side at any time in the last forty years, he would never have won the nomination.
The Dukakis comparison has its limits for another reason. Pawlenty isn’t polling nearly as well relative to the field as Dukakis was at this point in 1987. By mid-1987, Dukakis was polling among the top four Democrats. Pawlenty has consistently been seventh or eighth, and in some polls he has been tied for ninth. Excluding Trump, Palin and Huckabee from the field because they are not going to be candidates, Pawlenty is at best in fourth position, and for a Republican that is a recipe for being a runner-up.
At this point in 2007, Romney was polling an average of 8%, and we know he didn’t prevail. Right now, Pawlenty is polling an average of 3.6% What leads anyone to believe that he is going to surge out of nowhere to become the nominee? He most likely will become a competitive candidate, but there is nothing here that suggests he is going to win.
P.S. Comparing to Pawlenty’s poll numbers to other Republicans in past cycles with similarly weak polling is instructive. Pawlenty is currently polling as well as former A.G. Elliot Richardson (1976) and Gen. Alexander Haig (1988). Pawlenty will probably have more success and become a Lamar Alexander-like figure in the 2012 race.