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More on Pawlenty's Big Mistake (If It Was a Mistake!)

[Guest post by Isaac Chotiner]

Nate Silver has a typically smart reply to my post from Tuesday about Tim Pawlenty. I had argued that Pawlenty made an error by exiting the race so quickly because the field of candidates is so weak.

Silver takes issue with several things I wrote, in particular my use of the so-called "Surge Theory." I had never heard the term, but I did say this:

"If we have learned one thing from this election, it is that every candidate will get his or her time in the sun. Bachmann did. Cain did. Even Gingrich is likely to, as Ed Kilgore explains here. Surely this would have been true of Pawlenty, who is a much more credible alternative to Romney."

Silver responds by saying that the Surge Theory does not have much evidence to back it up historically:

Candidates usually do see some improvement in the polls when they enter a race, but it is generally modest — usually 2 or 3 points — and may simply reflect favorable press coverage and improved name recognition. Nor has there been any particular tendency for these bounces to fade: a candidate’s polls are as likely to continue moving upward from that point as to fall back down.

This seems reasonable, as does his point that our tendency to group the surges of different candidates into one phenomenon is too simplistic. Perry's surge and Trump's surge, for example, were completely different beasts, and should not be grouped together. (You should read his entire post for an explanation). What Silver does believe, however, is that each different surge can be partially explained by the unpopularity and relative weakness of the Republican establishment. The unique circumstances of this cycle have allowed more candidates to get big bursts of publicity.

I think Silver is right about all this, and I also think he is right that the best strategy for Pawlenty would have been to go at Romney directly, presumably as a way of appearing more anti-Establishment without actually being more anti-Establishment:

Mr. Pawlenty also had problems as an establishment candidate — especially his poor fundraising numbers, which as much as anything explained why he ended his campaign. But Mr. Pawlenty might have had a chance to win that way. This would have involved taking the side of the bet that what Republicans really are looking for an alternative to Mitt Romney and Mitt Romney in particular. Mr. Pawlenty would have run as an explicitly anti-Romney but implicitly pro-establishment candidate.

He concludes:

This scenario, though...would have involved a traditional path toward victory: winning Iowa, then hoping for the best. It would probably not have involved a highly novel concept like Surge Theory.

This is more or less what I wanted to convey in my original post, but the message was a little garbled. The Surge Theory is of course a somewhat ridiculous concept, and should not be taken literally. But right now no single Republican has particularly strong support, and Romney can't seem to crack 25%. Thus, as a matter of percentages, and assuming that a lot of voters would rather have a favorite than answer "None of the Above" to pollsters, someone has to get a bump in the polls when, say, Trump bows out or Perry's campaign begins to implode. In this scenario,  candidates are more likely to be given a second or third look by voters. And since Pawlenty is both

1. Not Mitt Romney


2. A Potential General Election Victor

he has something going for him that none of the other candidates have. He wouldn't need a magical surge; he would instead just need the time for voters to focus on him again.

None of this means that Pawlenty would have won the race (I always thought Romney was going to be the nominee, and even wagered a classy lunch with a former colleague that Romney was more likely than Pawlenty to capture the nomination), but would he have had a good enough chance to warrant sticking around? Silver's excellent post has not convinced me otherwise.