Bland Brand, Bad Buzz

For Pawlenty, “the headlines are a killer”

In recent weeks, you may have noticed something of a Tim Pawlenty pile-on in the press. (Collectively, it sounds something like this: He’s boring! He’s losing!)

On July 2, Nate Silver, on his New York Times 538 blog, pronounced T-Paw the “RC Cola” of Republican candidates (i.e. indistinguishable and in need of re-branding.) Pawlenty, wrote Silver, “has to compete against the big brands” (unlike, say, Ron Paul), and “indications are that [he] is losing the marketing war.”

Four days later, The Wall Street Journal, in a profile of Pawlenty, reported that while the candidate “has sought to turn his everyman image—some call it blandness—into a virtue,” his “hometown boy” story “thus far at least, isn’t resonating,” citing a recent poll and “lackluster” fundraising.

On July 8, The New York Times took to the next level (of specificity) the growing murmurs of T-Paw’s in trouble with a piece headlined (yes, with question mark): “Will Republican Race’s First In Be the First Out?” Wrote the Times’s Jeff Zeleny:

Tim Pawlenty was first in line to enter the Republican presidential race. He is now fighting to avoid becoming the earliest major candidate to be shown the door.

No contender for the Republican nomination has followed the conventional playbook more than Mr. Pawlenty, a former governor of Minnesota who began introducing himself two years ago during a prospecting trip to Iowa. Yet his path has been complicated by fresher faces, an unruly nominating contest and a handful of missteps that swallowed his summer momentum.

Zeleny described Pawlenty’s campaign operating with a “sense of urgency,” as if he may be out of the race tomorrow—until you learn that his urgent matter is the Iowa Straw Poll, still a month away.

Zeleny’s storyline—first in, first out—is pat, but does it reflect political reality? At the very least, the assessment—two fundraising quarters in, and with no primary, caucus or even unscientific Iowa Straw Poll results to go on—seems premature, if not an exaggeration of Pawlenty’s political troubles.

The most recent poll, released July 10 by The Iowa Republican, shows Pawlenty running tied for third in a field of eight. His fundraising numbers through the second quarter are at $4.2 million, which ranks him third in the group of six candidates who have made those figures public. Pawlenty’s totals are unimpressive (yes, Ron Paul raised more)—but so are everyone else’s. The candidates combined have raised a third of what was raised in 2007.

Once you get past the headline on Zeleny’s story, you learn that Pawlenty actually has something going for him. Writes Zeleny:

But Mr. Pawlenty has an extra set of challenges: he is building the best ground-level organization of any campaign around, but has struggled to tap into the new grass-roots energy coursing through the Republican Party and finding it difficult to secure early commitments because the field is still developing.

Framing this as an “extra set of challenges” is odd when, per Zeleny, Pawlenty is actually ahead of the game in terms of organizational strength, if struggling to commit supporters who want to see the whole field first. While this last bit may suggest a lack of enthusiasm for T-Paw, it does not exactly put him halfway way out the door—particularly when his campaign also picked up Sarah (daughter of Mike) Huckabee, the apparent mastermind behind her father’s success in Iowa in 2008, last week.

Also skeptical of Zeleny’s premise, Elspeth Reeve, at National Journal, provided a list of primary contenders whose campaigns are in worse shape.

So why single out Pawlenty?

Much of this relates to expectations—one of the few things the political press can go on before votes are cast. Rick Santorum, who has made more campaign stops in Iowa than Pawlenty, may be more likely the first to drop out, but then, who cares? No one expects much of Santorum. On the other hand, Pawlenty has been considered a contender. People in-the-know (press included!) expect a real run out of Pawlenty—perhaps no one more than Pawlenty himself, who we’re told has been carefully plotting a presidential run for years. This hubris makes a good story. Hubris meeting reality? Also a good story.

The political press’s “who will crash and burn first” focus is, yes, largely horse race over substance— and not without impact. As The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin recently pointed out, headlines like Zeleny’s have a way of becoming self-fulfilling prophecies. Wrote Rubin:

A supporter of another candidate bluntly told me, “The headlines are a killer with donors. It’s an investment. Are you willing to put money in a stock that the buzz is bad on?”

More of that bad buzz, from Bloomberg, July 8: “Failure in Iowa Straw Poll Could Doom Pawlenty’s White House Bid.” (The man who ran Romney’s ’08 Iowa campaign gets to define what “failure in Iowa Straw Poll” means, telling Bloomberg that Pawlenty’s “got to win” next month’s straw poll “or he’s going to be in tough shape.” And that Pawlenty’s “not a very exciting individual.”)

The conventional wisdom on Pawlenty received its “Meet the Press” stamp of approval this past Sunday, when David Gregory quoted from a May LA Times piece that described Pawlenty as “bland” and “soft-spoken,” in order to then ask the candidate, “Are you too dull to be president?” Gregory also cited Zeleny’s July 8th New York Times piece as evidence that “your campaign, by most accounts, it’s not doing very well,” and as the set up to ask Pawlenty: “Are you on the ropes at this early time?” Pawlenty’s answer, in part: “Well, I just announced my campaign six weeks ago, so I think it’s a little early for that.”

Gregory, for one, did not look convinced.

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Erika Fry is a former assistant editor at CJR. Tags: , , , , ,