Rethinking Pawlenty's Iowa Caucus Strategy

Last week, I suggested that choosing to campaign in Iowa might not be the most feasible strategy for a Republican presidential candidate like Tim Pawlenty, who, while plenty conservative, would have to compete with two candidates -- Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee, assuming they run -- who are bound to generate much more enthusiasm among Iowa Republican caucus goers. I'm going to elaborate a little.
Reporters like to pin politicians on a left-right continum. Occasionally, we add a second dimension and rename the first; this allows for the existence of conservative populists and fiscally conservative social moderates. Politicians, meanwhile, like to stretch out along the spectrum. They're "center-right," encompassing a broad range of views -- maybe even, woman in the suburbs of Philadelphia, your own.

Since 2000, conservatives' true north has moved to the right. In 2012, with a liberal Democrat in the White House, there is reason to believe that mean acceptability will shift even further to the right.

Enter Pawlenty. Pawlenty's personal and political orientation are conservative. Abortion, stem cells, taxes, 2nd amendment, domestic partnerships, not a Mormon. He's nominally qualified to pass the SoCon litmus test. But Pawlenty is heterodox. He has, in the past, supported climate change legislation that he now opposes. (A full flip-flop, says Politifact.). He campaigned for Sen. John McCain, who is still distrusted by Iowa conservatives. Forgive Pawlenty's inconsistency on global warming; it speaks to the environment he's running in: it's hard to see a GOP primary candidate do well in Iowa who supports the legislation.

The point is that Pawlenty is going to have to make some adjustments. It's not enough that he checks most of the boxes; he's going to have to check more than most. His instinct is not to demagogue pro-choicers, or gays, or even liberals, but that instinct will be tested as he faces pressure to prove himself acceptable to the guardians of GOP orthodoxy in Iowa.

The standard strategy for Republican presidential candidates is this: Run to the right in the primaries, but not too far to the right; run to the center in the general election. This strategy assumes that general election voters don't pay attention to the primaries. In today's technological and political environment, that's no longer true. The moment Pawlenty sets himself down in Iowa is the moment that the national default opinion of him will begin to be formed. If he stretches too far to the right, he won't be able to stretch back to the center. There is little give. There is too much tension.

I think Republicans will face an unusual exogenous pressure. If it's in the form of a third party challenge from anti-government, socially conservative populists, economic libertarians; the Buchanan brigadists; immigrant nativists, one could see how Republican Party moderates might be empowered relative to conservatives, who might decamp. If these forces remain inside the GOP, then the nominee will be pulled even further to the right.

Pawlenty's backers point to his roadmap in Minnesota: he managed to win a caucus  -- which favors conservatives -- to get his GOP nomination, and he managed to win the general in a purple state. He did so by building a center-right coalition. His two opponents split the center-left Wellstone voting block, with Tim Penny, endorsed by outgoing governor Jesse Ventura, taking a chunk of socially liberal but fiscally conservative voters from DFL nominee Roger Moe. Palenty's aggressive anti-tax stance and his promise to fund transportation enhancements around the Twin Cities through the general fund helped him win over surburban conservative independents. Social conservatives flocked to Pawlenty, as did the state's business community.  This was in 2002, when Republicans benefited from a feckless Democratic Party with a confused national message. It was an impressive win, but not one that necessarily tells us anything about Iowa, 2012.