Saturday, June 25, 2011

Is Tim Pawlenty's Campaign Schizophrenic?

Political debates are designed to allow candidates to discuss substantive issues. But people usually remember only a few moments of a debate, key answers or phrases that stood out from everything else. After the primary debate on June 13th, commentators became fixated on one thing Tim Pawlenty did not do: He did not challenge Mitt Romney on Romneycare when prompted to do so.

As we've discussed, there's nothing unusual about candidates refusing to attack each other during early debates. What made Pawlenty's pacifism stand out is the fact that he had criticized Romneycare the day before during a televised interview. Some observers reasoned, then, that Pawlenty was simply too intimidated to attack Romney face to face. This made Pawlenty look weak. Afterward, Pawlenty said in an interview that he had made a mistake by not taking Romney on more directly. Was Pawlenty being sheepish, or was something else going on?

One possibility is that there is a real indecision about strategy in the Pawlenty camp. In Pawlenty's Profile, you can see that his optimal strategy is to avoid making enemies, and let the other candidates self-destruct. On the Rankings page, you can see Pawlenty's likeliest scenario for victory is to be the last man standing: He lacks the ability to excite people, but he offends neither wing of the Party.

That strategy is passive. It relies on other candidates to beat each other up (or shoot themselves in the foot). If Pawlenty were to engage in direct combat with other candidates, he might alienate factions of the party. Then he would have difficulty being the consensus candidate. Pawlenty's strategy yielded some fruit over the past two months as various candidates either declined to run or harmed themselves. Pawlenty's odds of winning the nomination rose from 4% up to 15%.

But Pawlenty's campaign staff are likely to be looking at polls, and Pawlenty has not performed well in those. In the opinion of Elephant Watcher, Pawlenty will probably continue to have difficulty in the polls until much later this year, since even early primary voters won't be paying much attention to the race. If people aren't paying attention, it's hard for a little-known candidate to raise his profile, especially if he lacks charisma.

Pawlenty's advisors may well believe that Pawlenty must go on the offensive more, and become a more provocative candidate. They're probably pressuring him to go after the frontrunner, Romney. This could explain why sometimes he's willing to attack others (particularly in media like Twitter where people on his team may be writing under his name). The "Obamneycare" line that he used during the interview prior to the debate was almost certainly fed to Pawlenty by an advisor.

On the other hand, that kind of fiery rhetoric may not suit Pawlenty's personality. In addition, campaign advisors tend to not to agree with each other on everything. Like the electorate itself, they often break into factions. Some of Pawlenty's advisors tell him to attack, and others tell him to avoid fights. Still others tell him he should fight, but to save the effort for later in the campaign.

Whatever decision Pawlenty makes, it's important for a candidate to appear decisive and consistent. It's better to stick to a less-than-perfect strategy than to flounder about looking for a perfect one. Voters want to see a candidate who knows what he's doing.