Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Rise of Tim Pawlenty

Every so often, Elephant Watcher will review the strategy of a particular candidate and see how it has played out over the previous weeks. Each candidate's optimal strategy is outlined on the Profiles page. For an analysis of each candidate's position based on that strategy, check the Rankings page.

Over the past few weeks, Pawlenty's odds of winning the nomination have increased dramatically, from 4% to 15%; from fifth place to second. Pawlenty's strategy is to be the "last man standing," to be acceptable and inoffensive to all factions, even if he is not able to excite any of them. Pawlenty must wait out the competition, hoping they devour themselves. Then, when the dust settles, he takes center stage.

It's hard to imagine a better sequence of events for Pawlenty than what has actually unfolded: First, several of Pawlenty's competitors have chosen not to run. Among them was Mike Huckabee, who was the Iowa favorite. Then Mitch Daniels--Pawlenty's chief competitor for the "consensus candidate" position--bowed out of the race. Donald Trump, who probably never stood a chance, nonetheless exited politics by flaming out in spectacular fashion.

That wasn't all. Newt Gingrich entered the race and immediately caught heat for major gaffes during his first interview on Meet The Press. Just a few days earlier, Mitt Romney sabotaged his own campaign with a strategically unsound quasi-defense of Romneycare.

What did Pawlenty do? Essentially nothing. He has always been present, but never obnoxious. As Gingrich learned, this is more difficult than it sounds. It requires discipline on the part of the candidate. Time is on Pawlenty's side, and he needs to take few risks.

All that having been said, this strategy does have its downsides. It is a passive strategy, and the candidate's future is not under his own control. Pawlenty must hope that the other candidates harm themselves, and there's little he can do to make that happen. The "last man standing" strategy requires luck. So far, Pawlenty has had plenty of it.

But the race is far from over, and the candidates still in the race have time to rehabilitate themselves. Pawlenty, too, has time to break discipline make mistakes of his own. And Pawlenty is still at the mercy of Chris Christie. Christie, with his late-entry strategy, will come under less scrutiny than the rest of the candidates until he jumps in. If Christie does not self-destruct, Pawlenty has little chance of victory.