Saturday, February 5, 2011
Pawlenty’s Problem: Why the Former Minnesota Governor’s Presidential Campaign is Faltering
Tim Pawlenty has made it clear he wants to be president. Unfortunately for him, despite repeated trips to Iowa, New Hampshire, and other early caucus-primary states, he remains low in the polls, often hovering below undecided or “don’t know” among the GOP polled about their 2012 presidential preferences. These continued low poll numbers and name recognition become evermore worrisome for Pawlenty with the Iowa caucuses merely one year from now.
But what explains his persistent low poll numbers? There are many reasons. The most recent being him becoming the "other Minnesotan” running for president, being eclipsed by Michelle Bachmann in terms of buzz and excitement.
Yet the core reason for Pawlenty’s lack of success is simple–he lacks a narrative.
I have written often about the importance of a narrative in politics. Political narratives are stories you tell about yourself that define who you are, what your vision of the world is, and what you hope to accomplish if elected to office. The narrative is what defines you as unique. Narratives are selling points for candidates similar to story lines for products being sold (sales pitches) or the arguments made when doing fund raising. This is why I argue that candidates are like selling beer. Budweiser tells a good story about its product, why you should drink it, and what kind of person you are if you consume its product.
Political narratives are powerful rhetorical devices. They move voters and set candidates apart from others. In 2008 Obama had a narrative about change, a story about himself as the embodiment of the American dream. In 1980 Reagan told a story about personal initiative, self-reliance, and government, and in 1960 JFK told of a country facing new challenges in a cold war and Sputnik era. All successful candidates have narratives.
Pawlenty’s problem all along has been the missing narrative. The best way to describe this comes from a recent chart that the New York Times constructed (February 4, 2011) that graphically depicted the major GOP contenders along two dimensions–moderate/conservative and inside/outsider. According to the graph, Pawlenty is dead in the center. He is neither insider nor outsider, moderate nor liberal.
For Pawlenty this placement might suggest perfect placement. He is dead center. This may be true, but I think another interpretation is possible. Pawlenty is not the first choice of anyone, he is the second or third (or fourth or lower) choice for most. He is the default candidate behind everyone else. He is not preferred by anyone as their first choice, and he is stuck behind the other first choices of Romney, Huckabee, Palin, and yes, even Bachmann. As Leo Durocher once said: “Coming in second is like kissing your sister.” There is no thrill or excitement here, and that is Pawlenty’s problem.
Pawlenty is a derivative candidate. He has yet to carve out a narrative that distinguishes himself from the other more famous candidates running. He is thus far a boring, bland, GOP governor from somewhere in the upper Midwest; a candidate who never won a majority of the votes as governor.
Pawlenty has tried several narratives for the last couple of years but none seem to work. He is against taxes but so are other candidates. He opposes abortion and same-sex marriage, but so do others. He in so many ways has run for president on the narrative “Me too” when referring to his positions that ape his more famous competitors. Pawlenty has simply failed to carve out a distinct set of political views that distinguish him from the pack.
On top of that, Pawlenty cannot fill in his narrative with his record in office. Maybe he can say no tax increases for eight years, but he left the state with a fiscal mess that is not good. He cannot point to a major turnaround in schools, and he has no other real accomplishments he can point to. A bridge collapsed under his watch and he lost the unallotment case. There is also no evidence of coattails with his victories and instead, he may owe his election to Paul Wellstone’s plane crash in 2002 and the huge turnout for Michelle Bachmann in 2006 that gave him the winning edges.
The personal story of Pawlenty is not really compelling. Yes blue collar roots to governor. At one time he tried the “I am the Sam’s Club Republican.” That did not work either. It is also not working on the book tour. A tour, by the way, following in the path of all other candidates who sort of write a book and go on tour. Again, his tour is derivative of Palin’s right down to the cover design. Finally, few can say that Pawlenty is a compelling or electric speaker compared to a Palin or Bachmann.
Overall, Pawlenty’s problem is the missing narrative. He has tried several and they are not compelling. He has very little time to find one and I doubt it will happen. Iowa is one year away. He needs a good story now and he cannot find one. Without it, he will remain in the center of the GOP chart, no one’s first choice.