Nate Silver in the New York Times blog FiveThirtyEight says he’s come around to defending Tim Pawlenty’s position in the top tier of the Republican race for nomination, but it’s not exactly hard-chargin’ support for the former Minnesota governor.
The headline: “How Tim Pawlenty is like RC Cola.”
Viewed [visually on a chart], Mr. Pawlenty’s prospects might seem relatively bright. He’s pretty much smack-dab in the middle of the field — to the right of Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman, but to the left of Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry (who has not officially entered the race yet but is reasonably likely to do so). Some other candidates who had the potential to occupy this space — say John Thune or Haley Barbour or Mike Huckabee or Mitch Daniels, although some of these candidates are more difficult to characterize than others — have chosen not to run.
But this representation is too simple. Instead, the candidates encroach on one another’s territory: Ms. Bachmann’s voters might plausibly also consider Mr. Perry or Herman Cain, while Mr. Huntsman’s might consider Mr. Romney.
Picking up on the cola theme, Silver says:
Since someone like Mr. Pawlenty doesn’t distinguish himself on the basis of the fundamentals, he instead needs to stand out on the basis of superficial factors. Think about other products that are poorly differentiated from one another, like Coke or Pepsi or Bud Light and Miller Lite. These are exactly those products that tend to invest the most into their marketing budgets — Budweiser spends hundreds of millions of dollars every year trying to convince you that they’re a better brew than Miller, even though most beer drinkers would have trouble telling them apart.
It might not be that a candidate’s branding is inherently all that important — but it’s going to tend to be more important for a candidate like Mr. Pawlenty than for one like Ron Paul, who has a more eccentric set of political views and is more of an acquired taste. Mr. Paul is the equivalent of a microbrew like Dogfish Head. Dogfish Head certainly stands to benefit from making sure that it is available in stores and that consumers are aware of its presence — but it does not really have to convince drinkers that it tastes better than Budweiser, as any drinker who might plausibly choose it is already of that opinion. Mr. Pawlenty, on the other hand, has to compete against the big brands — and the risk is that he’ll become the next Schlitz Beer or RC Cola.
So far, he says, Pawlenty is losing the marketing war, as judged by polls and fundraising. Still:
By no means do I think that Mr. Pawlenty has become an unrealistic nominee: at worst, he has fallen a little bit behind Mr. Perry and Ms. Bachmann (and a ways behind Mr. Romney). But the question is whether he needs to rebrand himself, taking more of the posture of the underdog.