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

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

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

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.

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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.

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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.