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2 Roads Diverged in an Iowa Cornfield …

The results from this morning’s Des Moines Register Iowa Poll are being interpreted as bad news for Tim Pawlenty, who has 6 percent of the vote despite his focus on the state. But Mr. Pawlenty’s numbers are not quite as bad as advertised.

Consider Jonathan Bernstein’s reminder about the first Iowa Poll in the last election cycle, which was published in May, 2007. In that survey, Mitt Romney — who eventually finished second in Iowa — had 30 percent of the vote. In second and third place were John McCain (with 18 percent) and Rudy Giuliani (17 percent), who flopped there. The winner of the caucuses, Mike Huckabee, had  4 percent of the vote at this point in time — behind the likes of Tommy Thompson and Sam Brownback.

In other words, the horse race numbers need to be interpreted cautiously. Instead, I’d pay just as much attention to the impression that voters have of each candidate.

You have to dig down to find those numbers, but they are much better for Mr. Pawlenty: some 58 pecent of voters view him favorably, versus 13 percent unfavorably. The figures for Mr. Romney, by contrast, are 52 percent favorable but 38 percent unfavorable.

Put simply, there is considerable upside in Mr. Pawlenty’s numbers — and some downside for Mr. Romney, who is effectively competing for the votes of perhaps only 50 or 60 percent of the voters in the state because of his relatively moderate positions.

What Mr. Pawlenty does have, however, is a perception problem, which may beget a Rick Perry problem.

The numbers for Mr. Pawlenty in this survey — strong favorables, but a poor performance on the ballot test — are the same numbers that we’re seeing for him elsewhere in the country.

At the same time, Mr. Pawlenty is in something of a Catch-22. On the one hand, he has some interest in being viewed as a top-tier candidate with a strong chance to knock off Mr. Romney and the other contenders — that’s how you secure donations, endorsements and win the “shadow primary”. On the other hand, being viewed as a top-tier candidate means that you’ll face higher expectations, which are bound to produce disappointment when you’re polling at 6 percent in what is supposed to be your best state.

It’s a bit like being a highly touted pitching prospect who goes 2-7 with a 5.28 ERA in his first several major league starts. Plenty of Hall of Famers have begun their careers like that. But some teams, particularly if they have a lot at stake, may grow impatient with the performance, tinker with the pitcher’s delivery, send him to the bullpen, or do other things that undermine his potential for long-term success.

In Mr. Pawlenty’s case, the danger is that the Republican “team” will choose to promote another prospect from the minors to take his place in the rotation: most notably  Governor Rick Perry of Texas, who also had strong favorability numbers in the survey. Mr. Perry and those who would vouch for his campaign have to like what they see in the poll: a nominal front-runner in Mr. Romney who is polling below his finish in the 2008 caucuses, who has high unfavorables, and who is hedging his bets on the state — and a challenger in Mr. Pawlenty whose potential has not yet been realized. (Another area in which Mr. Pawlenty’s performance has been lacking is his fund-raising numbers, which Politico suggests are going to be poor.)

It seems as though two roads are diverging in Iowa: the four-lane Frontrunner Freeway and a bumpy, dirt road called Also-Ran Avenue. Which route Mr. Pawlenty takes into the Iowa caucuses may be determined by his performance in the Ames straw poll, which will be in August.

I haven’t said anything about the performance of Michele Bachmann in the poll, who drew 22 percent, just a point behind Mr. Romney. Really, there isn’t much to say other than this: these are terrific numbers. In addition to the strong top-line results, Ms. Bachmann had the best favorability ratings of any candidate. And she was the second choice of 18 percent of voters, versus 12 percent for Mr. Pawlenty and 10 percent for Mr. Romney. I would consider her the favorite to win the Iowa caucuses and a legitimate contender to win the Republican nomination.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.