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The Pawlenty Surge Was Never Coming

With several Republican candidates struggling in the nomination race and no Chris Christie or Mitch Daniels to save them, those underwhelmed by the current field have instead turned their attention toward the one who already dropped out: Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota.

The New Republic’s Isaac Chotiner suggests that Mr. Pawlenty made a major error by dropping out of the campaign and would have had a good chance to win the nomination. The American Prospect’s Jamelle Bouie goes one step further and says Mr. Pawlenty “could be winning right now.” Jonathan Bernstein, on the other hand, thinks that Mr. Pawlenty read the writing on the wall correctly and had already “essentially lost.”

My position is somewhere between Mr. Bernstein’s and Mr. Chotiner’s. I think there is a scenario under which Mr. Pawlenty could have won the nomination. But I don’t think it is was a particularly likely one and I certainly don’t think he’d be leading in the polls right now.

Mr. Chotiner notes, and it has become commonplace to say, that several different Republican candidates have “surged” over the course of the cycle, seeing sudden and sharp increases in their polling. Isn’t it likely that Mr. Pawlenty would have surged as well? (For convenience, we’ll refer to this hypothesis as Surge Theory.)

I doubt it. There are a couple of problems with Surge Theory.

One of Surge Theory’s major conceits is that this sort of thing happens all the time: a candidate enters the race, shoots up to 20 percent in the polls overnight and then is back down to 6 percent the next day. But in fact, this has not been common 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.

Instead, that fact that we’ve had several different “surgers” this cycle — 10 different actual or potential Republican candidates have led at least one poll since the start of the year — is quite unusual. You can draw a weak parallel to the 2004 Democratic race, when eight different candidates led at some point in the cycle and both Howard Dean and Wesley Clark experienced fairly dramatic increases in their polling. But Mr. Dean and Mr. Clark’s numbers did not really fade until just a week or two before the actual voting began. That is quite common: lots of volatility in the several weeks before, and the several weeks after, Iowa and New Hampshire. It is not at all common, however, to see such dramatic movement so early in the campaign. You can cite an example like Fred Thompson, but you’ll run out of them pretty quickly after that.

The second problem with Surge Theory is that it lumps different candidates together on the basis of what happened in their polling, while missing a potentially deeper connection between them.

The “surgers” are usually described as being Donald Trump, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry and Herman Cain. We have a slightly different story in each case:

Donald Trump was never a candidate for president, and his surge in the polls was extremely short-lived. I would suggest it belonged more in the category of a none-of-the-above or not-yet-sure choice, as sometimes happens when a pollster inserts a well-known name in the middle of a bunch of obscure ones. In the past, pollsters have sometimes included the names of well-known businessmen (Lee Iacocca) or former nominees (Gerald Ford) or people who have no interest in running (Colin Powell) or independent politicians (Ross Perot as a Republican) into primary polls. Sometimes they do pretty well, but voters may simply be picking out the name they know the best rather than considering them in the context of being actual candidates. The moment it seemed even slightly plausible that Mr. Trump would actually run, his numbers dropped off a cliff.

Michele Bachmann’s surge was not quite as dramatic as the others, and her fade was gradual rather than sudden. It is pretty well explained by fundamental factors. Mrs. Bachmann entered the race with a boffo performance in a debate, had a natural base of Sarah Palin supporters to draw from and then faded once a candidate (Rick Perry) with as much Tea Party credibility but more traditional credentials and stronger campaigning skills entered instead.

As for Rick Perry himself, I think there’s a lot of hindsight bias in implying there was anything so certain about the decline in his polling. There has been some tendency historically for candidates who entered the race late to see their numbers decline after their announcements, but we’re talking a 2- or 3-point drop in the polls on average and not anything like the 20-point decline Mr. Perry has experienced (such dramatic declines have rarely happened unless there was some monkey business involved). Mr. Perry’s problems, instead, can be linked to his abysmal performance in the Republican debates.

Finally we have Herman Cain, who is a phenomenon unto himself and one without any good precedent at all. Unlike the other candidates, his surge came only after several months of campaigning. Unlike the others, it came despite initially very weak name recognition. And unlike the others, Mr. Cain’s surge in the polls has not yet faded — although we’ll see how he endures his rough week.

Basically, I think Surge Theory errs by lumping four separate and distinct cases into one. There are some parallels between Mr. Perry’s surge and Mrs. Bachmann’s — but Mr. Cain’s and Mr. Trump’s were different sorts of phenomena.

Except for one thing. All of these candidates, with the partial exception of Mr. Perry, are anti-establishment candidates. They are not considered acceptable choices at all by Republican elites.

The lack of elite support may be some of the reason that they faded in the polls. (For the record, I am persuaded that elite support matters, I’m just not sure that it can’t ever be outweighed by other factors.) But perhaps also, the lack of elite support explains why these candidates rose in the polls in the first place.

The Republican establishment is not very popular right now — even among Republicans. Republicans perceive it as having delivered a failed candidate in John McCain, and having been complicit in unpopular things like the Iraq War, rising deficits and the federal bailouts. Some Republicans, even some staunch conservatives, also do not think highly of George W. Bush, perhaps the Republican establishment’s most recent real success. The Tea Party movement that helped to revitalize conservatives in 2010 was a reaction to much of this.

Tim Pawlenty was never going to pass for an anti-establishment candidate — not when he had been in elected office since 1993, not when he had more support among pundits than he seemed to have among voters, and not when his personality and his campaign were so cautious and predictable. But he sometimes tried to run as one, particularly late in the race when he frequently went toe to toe with Mrs. Bachmann.

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.

I don’t know that I buy this theory. It seems at least as likely that the reason no credible establishment alternative has emerged to Mr. Romney is that having the establishment’s support is a bug rather than a feature for many Republican voters and is therefore Mr. Romney’s foremost flaw as well as his biggest advantage. That is, being the anti-Romney candidate is tantamount to being an anti-establishment candidate; hence, efforts by the establishment to seek an alternative to Mr. Romney are doomed to fail.

But the other case is certainly plausible — Republicans bypassed Mr. Romney in 2008 for another candidate with establishment support — and the bet on it would have been worth Mr. Pawlenty’s time and effort had he the money to make it. (Or had he not blown his chance during the Saint Anselm debate.)

This scenario, though — Mr. Pawlenty making no pretense of being anything other than a traditional establishment candidate who would run a traditional establishment campaign — 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.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.