It's difficult at this point to try to determine who has the best chance to be the Republican candidate in the 2012 election. Still, it's fair to say that Tim Pawlenty could pursue a potentially successful "Goldilocks Strategy" for the nomination.
To appreciate what I mean by this, we have to set aside a typical preconceived notion of the primary process. It is often (implicitly) assumed that primaries are dominated by party activists and the most ideological voters. This is not actually true. In fact, after the McGovern debacle of 1972, leaders in both parties started increasing the number of primaries, as opposed to participatory caucuses (like what Iowa has) to tamp down on the influence of the hyper-ideologues. Caucuses are time consuming affairs where the true believers are heavily represented, but primaries have a much wider constituency.
Another unstated and erroneous assumption about the Republican electorate -- which is on full display in this article -- is that GOP voters are ideologically uniform, and very far to the right. Again, this is not really true. To demonstrate this point, I looked at the exit polls from the 2008 GOP nomination battle through Super Tuesday -- when it was a legitimate multi-field contest between Giuliani, Huckabee, McCain, Romney, and Thompson. I was interested in two questions: (a) how did the GOP electorate break down by self-described ideology? (b) how well did McCain do with each ideological group? (Note: the averages in the following chart were weighted by the number of delegates each state had -- so, the exit poll data from California counts more than the data from South Carolina.)
The remaining voters were self-described "liberals," among whom McCain did very well -- but their numbers were too few to factor into the chart.
I'd draw two big conclusions from this. First, as we can see, the "very conservative" group does not dominate the early rounds. In fact "somewhat conservative" voters are the modal category, with a big chunk of voters calling themselves moderate (nearly as many, in fact, as those who call themselves "very conservative"). This is a product of the primary system, which is open in many states (i.e. independents and sometimes even self-identified Democrats can vote in them).
Second, it would be very difficult to win merely by mobilizing the "very conservative" party base. Mathematically speaking, it is possible, but in practice multiple candidates tend to be in competition for that bloc, which means the ultimate winner will probably have to string together a voting coalition that samples from the more moderate factions. There are, of course, many ways to skin this cat -- and George W. Bush's coalition in 2000 was more conservative than McCain's in 2008 -- but the point is that, whichever mix you put together, Pawlenty, or any other candidate, will need some kind of mix. And it would be very difficult to win the nomination without getting at least 15 percent of either the "very conservative" or the "moderate" faction.
In other words, candidates who can pursue a "Goldilocks strategy" can be favored -- those who come across as not too conservative or too moderate, but fall somewhere in between. And on this front, Pawlenty might be able to carve out a real niche for himself.
Here's how Pawlenty -- and his advisors -- might look at the field:
It's fair to say that Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum are angling to appeal to the "very conservative" base of the Republican electorate. Any one of them could win Iowa -- where the "very conservative" bloc dominates -- but they could be less appealing in places like California, Michigan, New Hampshire, and New York, where the GOP electorate is less conservative. We probably have to put Mike Huckabee into this category as well; he won the Iowa caucus in 2008, but failed to generate crossover appeal to more moderate Republican voters. It's hard to see how he can solve that problem in 2012, should he decide to run. Sarah Palin -- whose favorability ratings among self-identified Republicans are relatively weak -- would probably have a similar problem, should she run.