Is Pawlenty a second-tier candidate?

Alexis Levinson Political Reporter
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Is former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty really a top-tier presidential contender?

The media certainly refer to him as one, often as the alternative to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who is widely viewed as the Republican front-runner. But with his continued poor performance in national primary polls, the expectation that he will not raise more than a few million dollars in the second quarter, and his most recent disastrous showing in the first major poll in Iowa, a state considered essential for him to do well in in in order to sustain his candidacy, people are beginning to question Pawlenty’s status as a top-tier candidate. (Pawlenty launches his first Iowa radio ad)

The Des Moines Register poll, released late Saturday night, found Pawlenty in sixth place with just 6 percent of the vote. Romney led with 23 percent, followed closely by Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann with 22 percent. Businessman Herman Cain took third with 10 percent, followed by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Texas Rep. Ron Paul, who tied with 7 percent of the vote.

“If I were the Pawlenty camp, I would be enormously concerned about this poll,” Jennifer Duffy of the Cook Political Report told the Des Moines Register.

So just how did Pawlenty earn the title of top-tier candidate in the first place?

Pawlenty’s standing as a first-tier candidate has as much, if not more, to do with the campaign he has set up and the people with whom he has surrounded himself than it does with what he himself brings as a candidate.

“I think the reason why they continue to be seen by the establishment media as a tier-one candidate is because the perception is that he has high national electability,” said a GOP strategist who has been involved with several presidential campaigns.

“He has convinced the insiders, or the establishment media, that, you know, ‘I’ve got the really smart talent, and I’ve got experienced people, and, at the end of the day, they can make the difference to me.’ And those people work assiduously at having good relations with the press.”

“Basically, Pawlenty has a real operation,” said pollster Chris Perkins. “He’s got an Iowa team, a New Hampshire team, a team in Minneapolis … He’s building a real political operation.”

“There is always a race, and it’s usually between the front-runner and an alternative. In this case, the anti-Romney,” said Republican strategist Jim Dyke. “As a successful governor, Pawlenty, on paper, has the potential to … fit that position, and he has amassed a team that suggests he will do the things one needs to do — message, organization, resources.”

“The people that he’s hired and surrounded himself with, like Terry Nelson … Phil Musser … Nick Ayers — they’ve created this massive operation of always being in the news … of always being in the Washington press circle,” said Bob Kish, an Ohio-based Republican consultant who is working for Bachmann. They’re “hiring a lot of big names, spending a lot of money and creating this perception.”

But Kish said that a good campaign team is not enough.

“This political operation they set up might be a first-tier operation, but the fact is they have a second-tier candidate,” he said.

The national polls would seem to corroborate that assessment.

The latest Gallup poll found Pawlenty with just 55 percent name recognition, and 9 percent positive intensity — Gallup’s measurement of a candidate’s favorability rating among those voters who know who he is. In fact, Gallup found, as Pawlenty’s name recognition has gone up, his positive intensity has actually declined.

In an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released on June 15, Pawlenty got just 4 percent of the vote. His favorability was 14 percent favorable and 15 percent unfavorable.

A YouGov/Economist poll conducted from June 18 to June 21 found that just 2 percent said they wanted Pawlenty as the Republican nominee.

But it’s not all bad news. An AP-Gfk poll conducted between June 16 and June 20 found that Pawlenty’s favorability among Republican voters had increased by 10 percentage points since May, rising to 43 percent.

Many insist that, at the moment, polling simply doesn’t matter.

“Polls now are like tasting the ingredients of a pie two weeks before you mix and bake it,” said Republican strategist Mike Murphy.

“Pawlenty has more potential. That is why he is being mentioned. People are guessing he might be able to move polls going forward, based on his skills, base, money potential and staff.”

“National polls don’t mean a whole heck of a lot,” added Perkins. But they do “mean a lot for buzz.”

He pointed to the fact that in 2008, Rudy Giuliani continued to lead in the national polls, “even when it became absolutely physically impossible for him to win the Republican nomination.”

While polls this early may not be relevant as an indicator of how many votes a candidate will get, one group is watching them more intently than the average American: donors.

“Donors do look at that stuff. No question,” said Perkins. “The more buzz that they can create that way, the more national fundraising impact they have.”

Doing badly in the polls can beget what Mike Murphy referred to as a “cruel feedback loop” in a column for Time’s Swampland blog.

“You need money to buy your way up in the polls, yet without good poll numbers it is very hard to raise money,” wrote Murphy.

Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight blog pointed out that because he is considered a first-tier candidate, those low poll numbers could be even more of a drag.

“On the one hand,” Silver wrote, “he has some interest in being viewed as a top-tier candidate with a strong chance to knock off Mr. Romney and the other contenders — that’s how you secure donations, endorsements and win the ‘shadow primary.’ On the other hand, being viewed as a top-tier candidate means that you’ll face higher expectations, which are bound to produce disappointment when you’re polling at 6 percent in what is supposed to be your best state.”

Others say that while the polls might not be definitive, they are an indication that Pawlenty is not building up the necessary enthusiasm for his candidacy.

“You’ve been at this the longest … you have a PAC that you ran around the country with … and yet, you seem to be standing in place,” said one veteran strategist.

“People who have not been in the race as long as him, nor have the organization on the ground that he has, are passing him in the public polls, which would require a rethink of the strategy if I’m Tim Pawlenty: ‘What are they saying that’s generating heat that I’m not?’ ”

What most everyone agrees on is the fact that Pawlenty is going to need significant financial resources. The deadline for second quarter fundraising is Thursday, and Pawlenty’s campaign has been low-balling what it expects to bring in — saying they are likely to raise just a few million dollars. Pawlenty aides have suggested that this is more than sufficient for what the campaign needs, but some of observers are skeptical.

“They’re trying to downplay expectations because they realize they’re going to undershoot what the perception is,” said the veteran strategist. “If he doesn’t show that he’s raised over 8 or 9 million dollars, I don’t know how he expects to keep pace with anybody because, given where he is in the polls, they need money.”

“If he’s not close to Romney, and he’s not close to Bachmann, and he’s been at this for a year, then he’s not a first-tier candidate. Period,” said Nevada-based Republican strategist Chuck Warren.

Some reports suggest that Pawlenty is having some trouble fundraising.

“What I’m hearing is that they’re having a tough time. They were kind of selling a wing and a prayer prior to the debate performance. Since the debate performance, it’s been even tougher,” said the veteran strategist, referring to Pawlenty’s refusal to attack Romney during the New Hampshire debate for the health care program Romney instituted while governor of Massachusetts, despite having criticized him the day prior.

Republican consultant Phillip Stutts places less weight on the nearest fundraising deadline.

“If the fundraising numbers come out and he hasn’t raised a lot of money, all that’s saying is he’s got to show improvement. The two barometers are, in my mind, the finance deadline in September and the Iowa straw poll,” said Stutts.

Unfortunately for Pawlenty, a poor performance in the second fundraising quarter could make it harder to raise money later on.

“Money follows a bandwagon in politics,” Warren said.

The conventional wisdom is that Pawlenty has to win or perform exceptionally well in Iowa in order to have a chance at the nomination, and he’s put a lot of resources into the state.

As the Des Moines register points out, “Pawlenty has spent 26 days in Iowa during this election cycle, has hired an A-list team of Iowa campaign operatives and was the first major candidate to air television ads in Iowa.”

His success overall, most say, is predicated on a good showing in the Ames Straw Poll in August. Like former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee’s surprising performance in the last cycle, a strong finish would give Pawlenty momentum moving into the Iowa caucuses and on to other states.

“(Indiana Gov.) Mitch Daniels’ exit gave them a really big window, but that window’s going to start to close,” said Jennifer Duffy of Cook Political Report to the Des Moines Register. “My guess is that he needs to turn this around by Labor Day, or I’m not sure how viable he is in the long term. If Pawlenty is not viable in Iowa, then it’s hard to make the argument that he’s viable for the nomination.”

Pawlenty is not in a bad position in the first-in-the-nation caucus state, said one Iowa Republican.

“It’s been somewhat static in terms of the traction he’s been gaining here. When he first came here in November of 2009 he was on everybody’s list; everyone was willing to listen.”

Now, the Iowa Republican said, Pawlenty is doing no worse and no better: “he remains squarely in that same place; he’s still on everybody’s list.”

As far as his organization in the state, the Iowa Republican said, Pawlenty is a star, calling his on-the-ground team in Iowa, “if not one of the best, the best organized.”

“The organization pays huge dividends at something like the straw poll,” the Iowa Republican said. “Other campaigns aren’t as well-organized, or hustling as hard as his is.”

That said, the Iowa Republican cautioned, “I’m not a believer that the straw poll is completely organizational. I think it’s also a test of how your message is resonating. I don’t think people, no matter how organized you are, people are going to get on a bus for three and half hours to get to Ames for some shitty barbecue and a country cover band.”

But observers say that exciting voters isn’t necessarily Pawlenty’s strong point.

“He may have an organization there that’s bigger or better than Herman Cain’s or Michele Bachmann’s, but part of this exercise is generating heat,” opined the veteran strategist.

The statement echoed that of Iowa power broker Doug Gross, who, on the subject of Pawlenty, emailed that he “Think[s] he has fallen flat lately.”

“What happens if he comes in third place in the Iowa straw poll?” questioned the veteran strategist. “What does he do then? What happens if Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain beat him? … How does he raise money? The attention will be all on them.”

Such a scenario, the veteran strategist said, would completely derail Pawlenty’s campaign: “He doesn’t have a lot of money, fundraising will certainly dry up … he doesn’t have any momentum heading in there [to Florida], and no cash.”

The other issue is the expectations game.

“When Romney just said ‘I’m not going to participate in Iowa,’ it immediately just lessened the significance of Iowa,” said Warren. That, he said, puts more pressure on Pawlenty to win the straw poll.

“When the top guys aren’t doing it, that’s a problem. And then you’re not going to win it?” he said.

The Des Moines Register poll does not seem to instill a lot of confidence on that front. He is trailing in a state that is seen as essential for him to win, despite having devoted significant time and resources to campaigning there.

But numbers guru Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight blog says the results aren’t necessarily as bad as they look. First of all, Silver pointed to Pawlenty’s favorability ratings, which are 58 percent favorable and 13 percent unfavorable, compared to 52 percent favorable and 38 percent unfavorable for Romney.

It should also be noted that the poll surveyed Iowa Republicans before Tim Pawlenty’s television ad buy went live. The ad buy was the first major media buy by any candidate in Iowa, and seems likely to raise Pawlenty’s name recognition.

Also, the trial heat ballot included only candidates who had announced, and thus excluded possible candidates like former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and Texas Gov. Rick Perry. That means that the results are likely to shift as one or the other of them announces.

Perry, who has a very high favorability rating in the Iowa poll, could pose a big threat to Pawlenty, said the veteran strategist, in terms of vying for the coveted position of what Dyke called “the anti-Romney.”

“Rick Perry would get all the media attention that Pawlenty is not. He would instantly be seen as a conservative alternative to Romney, and he would be able to raise a ton of money,” the veteran strategist said.

Pawlenty advisor Eric Woolson, who also served as Huckabee’s Iowa director in 2007, dismissed the poll results.

“Sunday’s poll and others like it are a flashback to four years ago, when Mike Huckabee was at a similar position — well liked but not yet widely known,” he said. “Of course, we all know how that ended up.”

Indeed, observers note that the Pawlenty campaign seems to be hoping to follow a similar trajectory as Huckabee did, “a campaign that is going to try to rely totally on some big moments to catapult themselves,” said the veteran strategist.

Unfortunately for Tim Pawlenty, the veteran strategist noted, the first such opportunity for a big moment came at the New Hampshire debate, when Pawlenty declined to attack Romney on his health care plan, after having done so the day before on “Fox News Sunday.”

“Voters don’t necessarily like slash and burn politics but if you’re going to say something about the guy, if you’re going to attack his policies … he didn’t have to be vicious about it, he could have just stood up for it and made the point. Say it to the guys face,” he said.