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.
On the other hand, Jon Huntsman and Mitt Romney could be less appealing to the base of conservative voters. Huntsman's problem is obvious: his association with the Obama administration will be a big problem for him. With Rommey, it is an ironic situation; he dominated among very conservative voters in 2008 (at least in the North), but with health care now a highly salient issue, he is going to have trouble with them.
Haley Barbour seems like he will have trouble on both fronts. As a governor from the deep South, he could have a hard time appealing to the more moderate Republicans in the Northeast and the West. His previous profession as a lobbyist could hurt him with more conservative voters, too. (Admittedly, it is hard to get a handle on the prospects of a Barbour candidacy at this point.)
Meanwhile, Pawlenty has a reasonably conservative record as governor of Minnesota (without the obvious hang-ups that plague Huntsman and Romney), but his disposition and temperament should make him appealing to moderate voters. He might not have the most enthusiastic supporters, of course, compared to his opponents. Even so, this kind of "Goldilocks" strategy is a strong one in the GOP nomination battle, and Pawlenty could be well positioned to execute that kind of maneuver.
Now, caveats abound. First, it matters who ultimately enters the field. Chris Christie, Mitch Daniels, and Paul Ryan could all be potential Goldilocks candidates, too, and they each would probably attract stronger intensity from their supporters than Pawlenty could.
Additionally, some of the other candidates might solve their problems of being "too hot" or "too cold." Bachmann, Gingrich, Huckabee, and Santorum will probably have a difficult time doing this, as they all face a "must win" situation in Iowa. They can all, accordingly, be expected all to run to the right over the next eight months, leaving them little time to pivot into the more broader based primary battles. The candidates with a better chance of solving their problems would be Huntsman and Romney. As Jim Geraghty argued a few weeks ago, Huntsman could appeal to conservative voters by becoming a kind of "whistleblower" candidate, the former insider who exposes how incompetent the Obama administration has been. Romney, meanwhile, could solve his problem by finding a reasonably effective way to distance himself from Obamacare (either by disavowing the Massachusetts program or by distinguishing it from the national program the Democrats put in place last year), then by focusing like a laserbeam on the economy, which is a strong issue for him.
Another caveat is that Pawlenty must excel at the race for campaign cash, and really the only way to do that is to woo the party elite (broadly defined) who make up the "invisible primary." In the nomination as it has developed in the years since the reforms of the 1970s, the elites usually converge on a couple candidates, thereby winnowing the effective field down before the voters make a choice. We can see the results of that winnowing process in each candidate's list of endorsements, and especially the quarterly reports to the Federal Elections Commission: the more elite support, the more endorsements the candidate will earn and the more money he will raise. On this front, Pawlenty seems to be off to a good start. National Journal's poll of Republican insiders still shows Romney leading the pack, but Pawlenty is closing fast. If he can translate this into high-profile endorsements and solid fundraising hauls, he'll be a real factor in the game.
At a minimum, we can say that the ultimate Republican nominee will probably win by forging a (relatively) broad coalition -- one that connects Republicans of different ideological stripes. In the coming months, we should watch closely to see which candidates seem to be doing exactly that.