I thought some of the reactions to my Tim Pawlenty post from last week might be worth discussing. First, I’m not saying Pawlenty can’t or won’t win the nomination. I’m simply arguing that his best chance for winning is to get into a Romney-Pawlenty race with Pawlenty on the right. If the lanes between him and Romney get clogged with other candidates, Pawlenty will have a much harder time breaking out.
A couple of commenters suggested that Pawlenty would still be running long after the so-called fringe candidates now outpolling him have dropped out. But there is no reason to assume that unless Pawlenty ultimately outperforms them in the early states. While some longshot candidates do drop out early, others stay in for the long haul — Alan Keyes was the last major Republican candidate to drop his challenge to George W. Bush in 2000. And there’s no reason for them to drop out at all if they are still getting more support than “serious” candidates.
There is ample precedent for candidates with less realistic paths to the nomination knocking off candidates with more realistic paths. Think Pat Buchanan vs. Phil Gramm in 1996. And while Mike Huckabee didn’t knock Romney out of the race in 2008, he did badly damage his Massachusetts rival by beating him in Iowa. Huckabee’s Iowa upset derailed Romney’s strategy of running the table in the early states and may well have cost Romney New Hampshire, setting up John McCain to mount a successful bid. There are also numerous examples of candidates with plausible presidential resumes receiving less votes than candidates with less plausible resumes. Think of Lamar Alexander’s two presidential campaigns and Richard Lugar’s one.
I agree that media attention and improved name recognition can improve Pawlenty’s fortunes substantially. But Herman Cain has relatively low name recognition and receives less favorable media attention, and his poll numbers have already improved nevertheless. To me, Pawlenty’s biggest challenge is getting a clean shot at Romney. The biggest danger his campaign faces is that a critical mass of Republicans who want someone to the right of Romney will prefer a candidate well to the right of Romney.
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