How Tim Pawlenty came to be everyone’s favorite failed presidential candidate

REUTERS/Larry Downing
Recently, Pawlenty has re-entered the national consciousness in a unique role: as America’s favorite failed candidate.

Just about four years ago, Tim Pawlenty ended his presidential bid after a disappointing third-place finish in the Iowa Straw Poll. It was an embarrassing defeat for the two-term Republican governor of Minnesota, whose campaign initially had inspired high hopes and expectations from conservatives and the GOP establishment alike.

He’s kept a relatively low profile since. Recently, however, Pawlenty has re-entered the national consciousness in a unique role: as America’s favorite failed candidate. The political class has held up Pawlenty’s doomed candidacy when talking about any candidate with sinking chances: news outlets like Slate and the Associated Press run stories with headlines like, “In Iowa, Pawlenty’s Short Campaign Still Casts Long Shadow.” Republicans grimly consider who among them will go down in history as the “next Tim Pawlenty.”

History, of course, is littered with the remains of failed presidential candidacies. What makes Pawlenty’s so special?

The short answer: so much went wrong with Pawlenty’s campaign that his example applies to many different situations — and it is especially resonant this election cycle.

Don’t believe the hype

Pawlenty entered the Republican primary in May 2011, after years of hype surrounding his potential candidacy. He was said to have it all going for him: young and energetic, he was a two-term Republican governor of a historically progressive state, who more or less stuck to his guns as a fiscal and social conservative. He was billed as the kind of guy who could win support from both the conservative base and the moderate establishment in the GOP primaries, then go on to mount a formidable challenge to President Barack Obama. Upon entering the race, Pawlenty was hailed by the Wall Street Journal as the candidate with the best chance to beat Mitt Romney. “Is America Ready for President T-Paw?” the paper asked.

America, as it turned out, was not ready. The man Minnesotans might remember as an enthusiastic, everywhere-all-the-time governor was a dud on the campaign trail, unable to translate his plainspoken, Midwestern message into enthusiasm from voters. His fundraising stalled out, but his team wagered that if they just made a strong showing at the Iowa Straw Poll, it could propel Pawlenty through autumn and into the caucuses.

It was not to be: Pawlenty finished behind a fellow Minnesotan, Rep. Michele Bachmann, and Texas Rep. Ron Paul in the straw poll. He ended his campaign the next day, saying he had no “path forward.” After raising several million dollars over the summer, his push to win the electorally insignificant Straw Poll left the campaign $400,000 in debt.

To observers, Pawlenty’s saga illustrates a few broadly applicable lessons, which over time have made his name synonymous with political mediocrity. Primarily, Pawlenty stands out as a prime example of the candidate who looks good on paper but lacks personal appeal. He had an undoubtedly impressive resume and could theoretically appeal to many GOP constituencies, but he didn’t.

The establishment hype surrounding his candidacy makes his example starker, too. Not many were surprised when Herman Cain — the pizza mogul who briefly led the primary polls — ended his presidential bid. But Pawlenty sagged under the weight of high expectations both within and without the Beltway, and made his fall all the more dramatic.

Connections to 2016

Those things might apply to any election cycle, but the particular brand of Pawlenty’s failure also appeals uniquely to 2016, and that’s in large part because of Scott Walker. The two men have plenty in common: both are two-term conservative governors of blue — or at the very least blue-ish — states, and both had working-class Midwestern upbringings. Their candidacies were centered on the notion of straight talk, D.C.-outsider status, and the idea that conservative governance can win elections in blue America.

No surprise, then, that since at least the beginning of the year, the press has held up Pawlenty as a cautionary tale for Walker, comparing the two at every turn. In February, MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell called Walker the “Pawlenty of this group,” and as Walker’s standing in the polls has steadily plummeted, it seems an oddly prescient observation. In Iowa, a must-perform state for Walker as it was for Pawlenty, a Republican told MSNBC, “Not since, well, Tim Pawlenty has a candidate so hyped or seemingly invincible had their bubble burst in this way.”

Earlier in the summer, Slate ran a widely-shared story suggesting Walker is “Tim Pawlenty 2.0.”

“Walker,” Jamelle Bouie writes, “appears tailor-made for a Republican presidential primary — an ideal blend of mainstream experience and conservative politics. But in his months as a presidential candidate, Walker hasn’t been the dark horse we expected.” Substitute “Pawlenty” for “Walker” in this paragraph, and the effect is basically the same.

That said, Walker isn’t the only candidate this cycle who gets slapped with the Pawlenty parable anytime things go south. The Daily Beast brought up Pawlenty’s money troubles in a postmortem on Rick Perry’s 2016 campaign, which ended last week. The Associated Press ran a story in April on the chilling effect Pawlenty’s ill-fated effort is having on the 2016 field in Iowa. “GOP operatives now whisper his name as a way to discredit their opponents — and scramble to deflect any comparisons to their own candidate,” Julie Pace writes.

Too soon?

Ironically, however, the Pawlenty lesson that could resonate most in this crowded field is: don’t drop out. After he bowed out in August 2011, the GOP flirted with a number of longshot candidates — Bachmann, Cain, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum — before finally settling on Romney. At the time, many felt that if Pawlenty had stuck it out just a little longer, he could have seriously challenged Romney.

In the New Republic, Isaac Chotiner summed up the sentiment months later, writing, “It seems possible that Pawlenty badly miscalculated…were he still running, [he] would have had a better chance than everyone else (minus Romney and perhaps [Rick] Perry) of winning.” Perry’s bid, of course, turned out to be a disaster. Candidates weighing their options this cycle — who, unlike Pawlenty, benefit from super PAC millions and a changed campaign finance landscape — may ultimately find this Pawlenty lesson most instructive.

Still, for a guy supposedly so toxic, Pawlenty is sought after on the airwaves and in print as an outside expert on the GOP primary. He’s been quoted everywhere from National Public Radio to the Chicago Tribune to Bloomberg, weighing in on Walker, the Donald Trump Phenomenon, and the overall state of the race. And while he may not hold elected office, he has one of the best jobs in D.C.: he is CEO of the Financial Services Roundtable, a powerful organization that lobbies for banks and financial service providers.

As the race goes on — and more candidates drop out — Pawlenty will likely continue to be held up as Exhibit A of primary failure. It doesn’t seem to bother him, and he’s appeared to brush off the fact that his 2012 campaign is a punchline. (Pawlenty did not respond to requests for comment.)

In fact, Pawlenty might even embrace it. In public appearances, his go-to line is that his candidacy was “shorter than a Kardashian marriage.” In a GOP primary that sometimes feels more like a reality TV show than an election, Walker and his fellow candidates will try to avoid Pawlenty’s fate.

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Comments (35)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 09/15/2015 - 11:23 am.

    “Everyone” needs caveats

    Mr. Pawlenty is not, nor has he been, my own particular “favorite” failed presidential candidate. His appeal is to a narrow band of people who like to call themselves “conservative,” whether the label is accurate or not. Like many another candidate of both parties, though I think the preponderance favors Republicans, it has become painfully obvious that what drives Mr. Pawlenty’s energy and efforts is not public service. His current job as shill for banking interests demonstrates that point rather dramatically.

  2. Submitted by Paul Landskroener on 09/15/2015 - 11:30 am.

    Poor Tim

    First he loses the 2008 VP nod to Sarah Palen; then the 2012 Iowa straw poll to Michelle Bachmann. Who else can claim to have been beaten by that dynamic duo?

    And remember in 2002 when he (a) agreed to run for governor instead of the senate when Dick Cheney called him when he was on his way to announce the senate bid and (b) then by selling his sensible-moderate soul to the right-wingers in order to (barely) beat Brian Sullivan for the GOP endorsement.

    Finally, remember that he never did get a majority of Minnesotans to vote for him; he won with bare pluralities both times.

    I hope Scott Walker follows in his footsteps.

  3. Submitted by Alan Muller on 09/15/2015 - 11:30 am.

    Lets see now….

    He was a terrible governor who damaged the political system and economy of Minnesota. And he now has a job that epitomizes his rule as a servant of the banksters.

    Other than that, what’s to object to?

  4. Submitted by Joseph Stans on 09/15/2015 - 11:37 am.

    Poor Tim

    He lacked conviction and he was a coward. failed to have sufficient presence to stick it out and the first thing that turned against him he cut and run.He was a dreadful governor and would ahve been a dreadful president.

  5. Submitted by Theo Kozel on 09/15/2015 - 11:58 am.

    On the bright side…

    Pawlenty was quite poor as a failed governor but he excelled as a failed Presidential candidate.

  6. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 09/15/2015 - 12:05 pm.


    ” America’s favorite failed candidate. ”

    If ever there was a bogus premise for a story… this is it. Pawlenty is, has been, and always will be the definition of mediocrity at best.

  7. Submitted by David Frenkel on 09/15/2015 - 12:34 pm.


    National politics is about money, T-Paw didn’t have it and couldn’t raise it. Romney and Trump have money and used it and are using it to their advantage. National politics is not a poor man’s game.

  8. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 09/15/2015 - 12:40 pm.

    Why the Favorite Now?

    Tim Pawlenty’s candidacy was largely a media-created phenomenon. Elite commentators started mentioning his name as a rising political star because he won election in a blue state, and he didn’t wave a Bible to justify owning guns, i.e. he could be cleaned up and made to look respectable. What the elites failed to notice was that his statewide electoral success was achieved with the barest of pluralities. They also overlooked his penchant for outlining bold policy initiatives but never following through, because it would cost money (remember his plan to pay college tuition for every family in the state? Remember how he was going to tell us about that after his re-election? Still waiting).

    Once he started being mentioned, he forgot about being Governor. Pawlenty was never a terribly imaginative leader–the man was way out of his depth as Governor in the first place–but the idea of running for President was so attractive that all his energies were devoted to looking good in the national conservative media.

    The media lapped his candidacy like a hungry cat laps milk. Then, he backed out. Running for the nomination wasn’t going to be the cakewalk he thought it would be, so he bailed. His media sponsors looked foolish–why did this rising star fade so fast? The disconnect between appeal to the media and appeal to the voters seems to be too much to process.

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 09/17/2015 - 10:40 am.

      Elite commentators?

      I don’t remember Pawlenty getting a lot of attention from commentators “elite” or otherwise, his campaign flopped and gained any momentum.

      • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 09/17/2015 - 02:56 pm.

        Elite Commentators

        I recall a few mentions early on. I’m not 100% certain, but I think David Brooks mentioned him as an up-and-comer. Of course, then he ran and any illusions that he was going places (or that he was anything more than a moderately telegenic placeholder) were quickly dispelled.

  9. Submitted by Bob Johnson on 09/15/2015 - 12:46 pm.

    Pawlenty of nothing

    Tim Pawlenty – the guy that made Minnesotans miss Jessie Ventura as governor.

  10. Submitted by Edward Blaise on 09/15/2015 - 01:23 pm.

    Too bad…

    The single greatest opportunity in Tim Pawlenty’s life was as Governor of Minnesota. He wasted that opportunity by having his every decision in the last 4 years of his term being decided by “what’s best for my Presidential aspirations?”. Remember his 2006 post reelection plan to travel to the Arctic with Will Steiger? Canceled as fast as you can say Frank Luntz: What are you thinking about you can’t be seen consorting with liberals? At least our two favorite GOP native son’s TPAW and NORM have landed on their feet and can pay the mortgage each month. They both entered politics to do good and they have done very well…

  11. Submitted by Jim Halonen on 09/15/2015 - 01:24 pm.

    Why the discord

    Over T-Paw? Two things I remember him for is the new cigarette tax he called “health impact fee”, and the 2007 Alternative Energy Bill. I’m confused, it seems the left would still be fawning over him.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 09/15/2015 - 02:53 pm.

      Two Things in Eight Years–Wow!

      Perhaps the discord is due to his ridiculously transparent attempts to appeal to the Republican orthodoxy.

      It was an “impact fee” on cigarettes so he could trumpet himself as the Governor who never raised taxes. No one could see through that one, I’m sure.

      He signed the alternative energy law, and then did nothing more on the issue. It seems he came to regret his youthful environmentalism when Senator McCain started vetting him as a potential Vice Presidential candidate (kind of like he publicly regretted his vote in favor of human rights protections for gays and lesbians, and his flip-flop on whether same-sex marriage should be constitutionally prohibited)

  12. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 09/15/2015 - 02:47 pm.

    Comparing Walker to Pawlenty . . .

    is an insult to Pawlenty. Even if you disagreed with Pawlenty’s policies (which I did), he was a decent guy who governed based on his promises – not hiding his true intentions like Walker, punishing public employees for voting Democrat. He was also not bought and paid for by the Koch Brothers. Pawlenty could answer straight forward questions knowledgeably and didn’t constantly change his tune. Walker’s ill-conceived suggestion that we need a wall on the Canadian border s not something someone from Minnesota – even the most conservative Republican – would endorse – would you wall off the lakeshore of all those great fishing lakes in Northern Minnesota/Western Ontario? Walker is dull and not very smart – certainly not enough to unravel the complexities of our nation’s major issues or the challenges of international diplomacy. Pawlenty is light years more qualified to be President than either of the two frontrunners and a majority of the Republican candidates, but only has himself to blame for choosing to run in 2012 and making the decisions he did.

  13. Submitted by Jeffrey McIntyre on 09/15/2015 - 04:11 pm.


    When the dust settles on this upcoming election, maybe TPaw can fly to Madison and hold the hand of the weeping loser in the Wisconsin’s governors mansion…they will have a lot in common, both as governors and failed contenders for the GOP nomination.

  14. Submitted by John Appelen on 09/16/2015 - 07:41 am.


    Being a fan of lower government spending and taxes, I miss Pawlenty. Where as Dayton has given us higher taxes, more government spending and a whole lot of long term debt. Thankfully the GOP folks were there to block the regressive gas tax that Dayton supported.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 09/16/2015 - 09:36 am.

      Easy Peasy

      It’s not hard to keep taxes down when you borrow money from school districts (without asking them for permission) and don’t pay all the bills. Then when adults take over again, blame them for “all this spending”.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 09/16/2015 - 11:21 am.

      Miss Pawlenty?

      You may be the only person in the state who can say that with a straight face.

      Or were you laughing when you typed it?

    • Submitted by Edward Blaise on 09/16/2015 - 12:13 pm.

      I always love it….

      When Republicans decry the unfairness of “regressive taxes” like the gas tax. It seems that the fuel you consume is by far the best indicator of your usage of our roadways and your cut of what it takes to maintain them: drive a big truck you use a lot of fuel in a vehicle that weight wise puts considerably more burden on the road surface than the person with a Prius. What could be more fair? Vehicle registration, general fund, sales taxes on transportation components are not nearly as fair: If I buy my new Lamborghini and never drive it but once a month on Sunday I am paying a steep price for roads I never use. The fuel tax is how we should pay for roads and having roads superior to our neighboring states is an important contributor to our earning our recent “best state for business” title. Again, thank you Governor Dayton for being the adult in the room when making public policy decisions.

      • Submitted by Edward Blaise on 09/16/2015 - 02:03 pm.


        I still see the need to address Mr. Applen’s concern for regressive taxes that fall hardest on those least able to pay. Take heart, when we direct a portion of our general transportation funding to building and supporting public transportation (used more heavily by lower income people) we help ease the regressive tax burdens that trouble Mr. Applen. It’s always nice to find “win / win” solutions to our public policy concerns.

        • Submitted by John Appelen on 09/18/2015 - 07:57 am.

          Equal taxes

          I have no concern with citizens paying the same tax rate, I mean they live in the same country and have access to the same services, freedoms, etc. It is the Liberals who believe citizens who make more, or are wealthier should pay more. That is why I am fascinated that the DFL supports this regressive gas tax. They raised the tax on the “wealthy”, and now they want to raise the taxes on everyone.

          I think they should just use the money they got from the wealthy to fix roads rather than starting more government programs…

  15. Submitted by Henk Tobias on 09/16/2015 - 09:13 am.

    If Timmy is our favorite

    Fail Presidential candidate wouldn’t his wife be able to ride that “popularity” right into the House? Yet, she’s declined to run for the GOP seat held by Ultra Conservative John Kline? Maybe the Pawlenty name isn’t as good as the writer thinks.

  16. Submitted by Jay Willemssen on 09/16/2015 - 12:34 pm.

    State and local govt smaller under Dayton versus Pawlenty

    State and local government, share of GDP, MN

    2010: 9.1% (Pawlenty’s final year)
    2013: 8.5% (latest data)

    It’s interesting how ideology can make some people believe and repeatedly assert the opposite of objective reality, particularly when they’ve been informed of this reality multiple times.


    • Submitted by Edward Blaise on 09/17/2015 - 04:31 pm.


      Of course the answer is that this result is a ratio of MN government spending over MN GDP. It is only logical that a state touted as “the best state for business” would have a rising GDP. Rational observers would happily take increased government spending that results in disproportionate growth, ie: what has happened under Governor Dayton. Irrational observers would cheerfully take reduced government spending without a care as to its’ negative effect on GDP and its indicators: job loss, wage and benefit losses. These irrational observers would also be known as Republicans.

  17. Submitted by John Appelen on 09/18/2015 - 06:19 am.


    As I have said before, government revenues will rise and fall with the economy. There are 2 ways to address this.

    1. The government holds a lot of cash in surplus during good times and spends it during lean times. Then replaces it during the next good time.

    2. The government holds less cash during good times and borrows more during lean times. Then pays back the debt during good times.

    I support #2 because it means that more money stays with the citizens at all times, and the government can easily borrow through the lean times. Whereas the DFL folks seems to have no problem taking an excessive amount of money from the citizens and putting it in a bank account.

    Worse yet. They start collecting excessive taxes and then feel the need to find somewhere to spend it… Like we have going on in MN now.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 09/18/2015 - 09:29 am.

      Not Exactly

      State and local governments should not borrow to meet recurring expenses. This is one of the big reasons New York City ended up in such financial trouble in the late 70s (giving rise to the second greatest headline in the history of American journalism). Borrowing should be reserved for non-recurring expenditures, like infrastructure upgrades.

      “Excessive” taxes are a matter of opinion. As with so much else, it all depends on whose ox is being gored.

      • Submitted by John Appelen on 09/19/2015 - 03:07 am.


        Let’s see… The DFL raises taxes and then soon after they are trying to introduce new programs to spend the excess revenues and increase the size of the recurring expenses. Even though they know another financial recession will come at some point soon.

        • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 09/19/2015 - 03:34 pm.

          Excessive, part 2

          “Excessive” does not mean “new” or “more.” The term has the connotation of being unnecessary.

          For the Republican, the inquiry into the necessity of an expenditure asks two questions:

          1. Is it something that would directly benefit me, or people very much like me? If so, it is necessary. If not,

          2. Is it the kind of expenditure that would make a person who advocates cutting it sound heartless and/or unpatriotic? If so, only minimal funds need to be spent, as giving lip service to the importance of the program will suffice (see, e.g., veterans’ benefits).

          • Submitted by John Appelen on 09/19/2015 - 09:23 pm.


            Since I believe in the 33% of GDP public spending target, I guess anything above that would be excessive from my perspective. I truly think our government should be able to keep of us safe, enable law and order, provide K-12 education, provide infrastructure, and care for the truly needy for that amount of money. Now the question is are the politicians and bureaucrats able to effectively prioritize and use that money or not for the common good of the USA. Or do they use it ineffectively to support a bloated system?

            I am in Nanning China today. Everytime I visit this country I am amazed by their incredible infrastructure and how neat it is. Whereas I just came from New Delhi India where there is relative chaos and garbage. My point being, we had best start eliminating waste in our government and free loading by some citizens if we want to compete globally, or some of these other countries are going to become the next USA when we falter.

    • Submitted by Edward Blaise on 09/18/2015 - 12:00 pm.

      And back to TPAW

      And your #2 was certainly the TPAW way and why, I suspect, you long for those days. Unfortunately, TPAW and Scott Walker both never got to the good times, despite a combined nearly 15 years in office. When the state is in a constant condition of financial despair: plugging holes with every fee and payment avoidance scheme imaginable it is a detriment to good times ever breaking out. TPAW and Walker have proved this and Dayton has shown the opposite.

      • Submitted by John Appelen on 09/19/2015 - 03:01 am.

        Agree to Disagree

        Please remember that I think the Pawlenty and GOP methods are part of why we recovered so well after the recession. It sure wasn’t Dayton’s changes since he was pretty well stymied until 2013, and many of his changes did not go into affect until a year or so ago.

        • Submitted by Dennis Litfin on 09/20/2015 - 10:50 am.

          Yes John….

          As everyone knows, once you have reached the bottom, forward is the only way to go.

          • Submitted by John Appelen on 09/21/2015 - 03:38 am.


            Not sure what to take from that comment…

            The impact of Daytons/DFL’s tax and spend increases should be arriving now, since they went into effect in 2013/14. It takes businesses and people a little while to adjust assets and make life changes.

            Of course the huge bonding bills should take effect sooner. But that is just immediate stimulus that our kids will need to pay for.

            It will be interesting to see the good or bad consequences of their actions.

            • Submitted by Sean Olsen on 09/22/2015 - 11:40 am.


              F15 state revenue was 3% ahead of forecast and spending was lower than forecast. And so far, F16 state revenue is 6% ahead of forecast and F16 spending is running lower than forecast.

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