Tim Pawlenty looked good on paper.
Pawlenty had been twice elected governor in Minnesota, a Democratic state, yet he did not have the liberal baggage of an Obamacare-like health care law or flip-flops on abortion and other social issues. He was an executive who balanced budgets and (arguably) didn't raise taxes. He was from the Midwest, a region where Republicans needed to do well. He came from a blue-collar background. He was both an evangelical and a former Catholic.
It was an open secret that Pawlenty planned to seek the Republican presidential nomination almost as soon as Barack Obama was elected. Pawlenty had been a runner-up to Sarah Palin in John McCain's vice presidential sweepstakes. He received a lot of favorable attention from conservative pundits, especially those who hoped he would mix his pro-life views with middle class-friendly economic policies to build a "party of Sam's Club."
Perhaps most important of all to reporters with visions of a President Pawlenty dancing in their heads, when the former governor did decide to put together a presidential campaign, he hired quality staffers and respected consultants. There was just one problem with all this: the polls showed very little support for a Pawlenty candidacy among the real, live voters who would actually decide the Republican nomination.
As 2011 wore on, those poll numbers barely budged. Maybe it was just name recognition, pundits suggested. But Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann started out with similarly low name recognition, only to quickly bypass Pawlenty in popular standing. It's still early, we reminded ourselves. Now here it is August, still months before the first binding contest of 2012, and Pawlenty is already out of the race.
There was nothing wrong with speculating that Pawlenty would have made a strong candidate for the Republican nomination. While I had my doubts as to whether Pawlenty's record or rhetoric matched to mood of the GOP primary electorate, I found the theoretical case for him quite plausible myself.
But the mainstream and, to a lesser extent, conservative media were slow to let go of these theories even as they increasingly did not mesh with the facts on the ground. It wasn't until it began to leak out that the campaign was having trouble paying those staffers and consultants that reporters began to cover Pawlenty as a dead man walking. By the time the Ames straw poll rolled around, it was clear something had to give. On Sunday, that something was Pawlenty's presidential aspirations.
CONTRAST THIS WITH the media's treatment of Ron Paul, who received twice as many votes in the straw poll as Pawlenty and lost to Bachmann by less than one percentage point. Paul has been running ahead of Pawlenty in scientific polls for months. USA Today/Gallup found Paul at 14 percent nationally compared to Pawlenty's 3 percent; CNN had him at 12 percent to Pawlenty's 2 percent. In the RealClearPolitics polling average, Paul is closer to Bachmann and Sarah Palin while Pawlenty is closer to the rear.
Yet Paul is treated as an afterthought. The Washington Post's Chris Cillizza wrote before Ames that it wouldn't mean much if Paul finished first. Another reporter blogged "a Paul win would help to diminish the overall process in Iowa to outsiders." Pawlenty himself was prepared to use the rationale that Bachmann and Paul were less credible than he, until the two Tea Party favorites bounced him out of the race entirely.
All this is somewhat understandable. If Pawlenty's Iowa strategy had panned out and he got to go one-on-one against Mitt Romney, he had a hypothetical path to the nomination. Paul's best case scenario is probably doing reasonably well in the early states, the caucuses, and the Interior West, and even then it is difficult to chart out a path to the nomination for him that doesn't involve a lot of imagination.
Many reporters feel burned by Paul last time. When he beat the other Republican candidates in fundraising during the fourth quarter of 2007 and experienced a slight uptick in the polls, the media paid more attention to his candidacy. Then he didn't win any primaries or caucuses, finishing outside the top three in Iowa and New Hampshire. But that's no excuse for pretending his poll numbers now are lower than Pawlenty's or Jon Huntsman's when they are clearly not.
Ultimately, pundits -- no matter how clever -- don't decide elections. Voters do.
There will be plenty of postmortems focusing on what Pawlenty did wrong. But let's not forget that the media too was wrong to anoint Pawlenty too soon because he looked good on paper.