Many, including yours truly, have assumed that Tim Pawlenty -- a former two-term governor of a blue state who has received high marks from both fiscal and social conservatives, and seems to be eminently likable -- would establish himself as the top alternative to Mitt Romney. While Romney continues to poll reasonably well nationwide, however, Pawlenty remains mired in the mid-single digits, often polling worse than the likes of Herman Cain.
While Pawlenty has a campaign infrastructure in New Hampshire, his partisan pandering won't play well there. Such behavior never does. While Romney (who of course has pandered even more than Pawlenty) lost there in 2008, his second-place finish was due to John McCain capturing the middle. Without a viable candidate running to Romney's "left" -- in quotes because Romney's record demonstrates that he's actually the most liberal candidate in the field -- and because voters in New Hampshire accurately view Romney as a northeastern moderate rather than a red-meat conservative -- I see no scenario in which Pawlenty even comes close to winning the Granite State. In fact, given the emphasis Gary Johnson and Jon Huntsman appear to be placing on New Hampshire, and the state's receptiveness to Ron Paul's message, it's entirely possible that Pawlenty finishes outside the top 5.
As a result, the Iowa caucuses are absolutely critical. If Pawlenty doesn't win there, I see no logical path to the nomination. Romney is cunningly ignoring the straw poll so he doesn't become a victim of elevated expectations in the likely event that he wins the straw poll and then underperforms again in the caucuses. In presidential politics, perception is everything.
And before Pawlenty wins the Iowa caucuses, he probably has to win the straw poll.
In the era of the 24-hour news cycle, the press is obsessed as never before with the horse race. Often, policy prescriptions are condensed into insufficient soundbites or ignored altogether. Any poll that is released becomes immediate "Breaking News" and sweeps across the blogosphere. This helps cement the imagine of someone like Romney -- who has high name recognition, despite being merely acceptable, at best, to most conservatives -- as a "frontrunner," while someone like Pawlenty or Huntsman -- who are known by very few voters outside their home states -- as underachievers. Another example of this horrendously stupid process is Donald Trump, who, before he announced he wasn't running, was typically blowing Pawlenty away in the polls, despite the fact that he had no campaign infrastructure, made outlandish statements and wasn't ever considered to be a serious candidate.
As a consequence, the story becomes -- or at least, will soon become -- why Pawlenty, Huntsman and others are struggling so badly in the polls. Eight months away from the Iowa caucuses, this is truly absurd. And it's almost entirely the fault of the national press, who believes that it's more important to discuss the latest poll results rather than exploring the differences between the candidates on issues like Libya or Afghanistan.
But the consequence for someone like Pawlenty is that bad poll results are magnified, because he is widely considered to be a "first-tier candidate" along with Romney and perhaps Sarah Palin. As a result, anything less than an outright win in the Iowa straw poll will be viewed as an enormous disappointment, and feed the narrative that Pawlenty's campaign has severely underperformed.