In the pre-reform age of presidential nominating politics (1831-1968), when the quadrennial convention was actually a meeting of party leaders to select a nominee, a guy like Tim Pawlenty might have been an ideal compromise choice between various factions of the Republican party. Here is a two-term governor from a historically Democratic state, one who managed to govern as a conservative and still win reelection in a bad year for Republicans (2006). Even then he might not have been a first ballot winner – he's a folksy Midwesterner without much flash, and it's possible that he wouldn't have had the broad base of popular support to steamroll a convention like that. But even so, it's still easy to imagine a convention working out for him, though it might have taken a round or two.
Of course, those days are long since gone. After the 1968 convention debacle in Chicago, the McGovern-Fraser Commission of the Democratic party demanded an open nomination process, one that was instituted in advance of the 1972 election. The Republican party slowly but surely followed suit. Today, party nominations are decided via a byzantine and arbitrary process of caucuses and primaries. The original reformers never anticipated the mess that their rule changes have created. They hoped for an open and truly participatory party system, but instead we have gotten a nomination scheme that has rewarded divide-and-conquer strategies, favored parochial interest groups and bloodless campaign professionals, vitiated the traditional party organizations, and facilitated the rise of a permanent electoral campaign.
Does a candidate like Tim Pawlenty have a path to receiving his party's nomination in this kind of environment? Yes, he does. We might think of an extended primary battle as the modern equivalent of the classic multi-ballot convention fight. So, for instance, Clinton versus Obama: that one went through 50 state primaries and caucuses because no clear consensus emerged; in the pre-reform era that would be like 50 convention ballots without a clear majority winner. McCain is another good example of this. He didn’t score a knockout punch early on. Instead, he outlasted Romney and Huckabee over the course of about 20 contests, continuing on through Super Tuesday.
Pawlenty’s current relationship with the party base is much different than McCain’s was then – one is still an unknown conservative, while the other was a well known “maverick” – but their paths to the nomination could end up being similar. Pawlenty is not necessarily the kind of candidate who could wrap things up by Super Tuesday, but it is easy to envision him outlasting his main rivals, and ultimately taking the big prize sometime in March 2012. Indeed, at this point, this looks like it could be his best shot--outlasting his opponents.
What steps could Pawlenty take to make this happen? Three come to mind.
1. “Place” or “Show” in the Invisible Primary. The liberals who fashioned the reforms of the early 1970s thought they were replacing the “smoke-filled” room for a true plebiscitary process. Not quite. The rise of primaries, combined with campaign finance reform and the necessity of television advertising, put tremendous strain on would-be nominees. They had to raise a significant amount of cash from a multitude of sources. It is here that a reconstituted party establishment has made its mark – as a vast network of governing officials, professional strategists, local pooh-bahs, interest group heads, and the “weekend warriors” of grassroots activism. This group has bankrolled most successful nomination campaigns, and Pawlenty would need to hold his own with it. He doesn’t necessarily need to raise the most money or pull in the greatest number of endorsements, but he has to do well enough in the next 10 months or so to keep himself on people’s minds.
2. Don’t Alienate Anybody. If Pawlenty’s best bet for the nomination is to emerge as a compromise choice among the various competing factions, he has to be acceptable to all the parties at the table by the time for choosing. His candidacy has to be a place where economic, foreign policy, and cultural conservatives will be comfortable, if not overjoyed. This is easier said than done. As he is such an unknown quantity at this point, he’s going to have to find a way to distinguish himself without agitating any stakeholders in the Republican party.
3. Manage Expectations in Iowa. Since Pawlenty hails from Minnesota, pundits are going to judge his candidacy early on by how well he performs in Iowa. It will be an early strategic imperative for Pawlenty to tamp down on this tendency, as Iowa could be a problem for him. The Iowa caucus sports very low turnout, and its constituency does not look like the rest of the Republican electorate. In 2008, 60 percent of Republican caucus goers were self-identified “born-again Christians,” compared with just 39 percent in the Florida primary. Additionally 45 percent called themselves “very conservative,” compared with 27 percent in the Sunshine State.
Regional affinity aside, these voters are probably not the natural constituency for Tim Pawlenty, especially if Mike Huckabee gets into the race. Thus, it will be important for Pawlenty not to allow the media – or the party establishment – to settle on the idea that he “must” win Iowa. If Pawlenty wins the nomination, it will probably come through places like New Hampshire, Michigan, and Ohio – not Iowa. Ideally, what he’d want is for the media to call him an effective winner with a strong second place showing in the Hawkeye State, which should be his goal.
In conclusion, it would be highly inadvisable to confuse Pawlenty’s mild-mannered nature for electoral weakness. In fact, it might just be the opposite. Pawlenty as a candidate could be an ideal second choice for the party’s nomination, in many voters' eyes. But that could work to his advantage: In many cycles, that’s what it comes down to, and 2012 doesn’t really appear to have an obvious first choice. And so, Pawlenty’s goal over the next 10 months should be to hang in there until the Republican party winds its way over to him.