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Tim Pawlenty: League-Average Politician

Thursday’s post — our first look in some time at the 2012 Republican primary field — generated quite a bit of reaction, and not all of it favorable.

One critique, articulated by political scientist Jonathan Bernstein in his excellent blog, is that in dismissing the prospects of candidates like Tim Pawlenty and John Thune, I placed too much emphasis on early polling — which, for instance, shows Mr. Pawlenty getting only 4 or 5 percent of the vote both nationally and in key states — when there are vast differences in the name recognition of the candidates. Mr. Bernstein writes:

I think [Nate is] assuming far too much. Thune and Pawlenty are unknown now — but should their campaigns go well over the next twelve months, they’ll be household names among Republican caucusers in Iowa by February 2012. Early good polling based on name recognition for weak candidates really is meaningless — see Rudy Giuliani ’08, among many others.

Certainly, one needs to account for disparities in name recognition whenever one looks at polling this far out from an election. It goes without saying that not many people are going to express a willingness to vote for you if they don’t know who you are, and that goes doubly so for primaries, when everyone has the same party label.

With that said, there are several counter-arguments, some of them general and some specific to Mr. Pawlenty.

Candidates who aren’t household names this far in advance of the Iowa caucuses sometimes go on to defeat those who are. John Kerry was less well known than Joseph I. Lieberman and Richard Gephardt early in the 2004 cycle, but easily bested both of them in the Democratic primaries. (Then again, Mr. Kerry was already polling in the double-digits in Iowa at this point eight years ago, and led polls in New Hampshire — neither of which Mr. Pawlenty is doing.)

Michael Dukakis went on to defeat the better-known Jesse Jackson and Gary Hart in the 1988 Democratic primaries, both of whom had gained prominence in 1984. (Then again, Mr. Jackson probably did not have broad enough appeal to be a viable national candidate, and Mr. Hart’s campaign imploded in scandal.)

Barack Obama was not as well-known as Hillary Clinton or John Edwards prior to 2008. (Then again, he was much better known than Mr. Pawlenty at a comparable point in time: a Gallup poll in December 2006, for instance, found that 67 percent of adults had heard of Mr. Obama, and of those who had formulated an impression of him, it was 42 percent positive and 11 percent negative. Mr. Obama’s numbers among all adults were considerably better than Mr. Pawlenty’s are now among Republicans only.)

Bill Clinton was not very well known prior to 1992, but none of the Democratic contenders were that year — it was considered a very weak field because George H.W. Bush had very strong approval ratings in the aftermath of the Gulf War and many name brands like Mario Cuomo declined to run.

Even if you ignore these qualifications, however — as well as the fact that all of these counter-examples involved Democrats rather than Republicans like Mr. Pawlenty — there are more examples of a candidate who was indeed quite widely known going onto win his party primary: Ronald Reagan in 1980, Walter Mondale (a former Vice President) in 1984, Mr. Bush in 1988, Bob Dole in 1996, both Al Gore and George W. Bush in 2000, and John McCain (who had about 85 percent name recognition at this point four years ago) in 2008. This list includes every recent Republican nominee. Name recognition isn’t everything, but if you looked at the success rate of “name-brand” candidates in recent primaries — those who were already widely known to voters — it would probably be something like three or four times higher than those who needed to build their name recognition during the campaign.

The other concerns have to do with Mr. Pawlenty himself. For instance, in The Associated Press poll that I cited Thursday, 68 percent of Republicans who had formed an impression of him had a favorable one. That isn’t a terrible figure, but it’s weaker than that of Mitt Romney (78 percent), Sarah Palin (82 percent) or the perpetually underrated Mike Huckabee (88 percent).

Also, a survey of Republican primary voters in Minnesota — where Mr. Pawlenty is the governor and where his name recognition is near-universal — showed him getting only 19 percent of the Republican primary vote there (although this was good for a nominal first place with Ms. Palin placing at 18 percent). Mr. Pawlenty’s approval rating in Minnesota is also a tepid 47 percent.

The other potential flaw is in assuming that name recognition itself is something exogenous from candidate quality. In plain English: the fact that a candidate hasn’t been very successful at getting voters to recognize his name is often a sign that he is an unremarkable candidate.

Mr. Pawlenty has not exactly been invisible. In 2008, he was the governor of the state where Republicans held their convention, and was widely speculated upon as John McCain’s vice presidential nominee — indeed, he was used as something of a decoy, before Mr. McCain picked Ms. Palin. In 2009, he played a key role in the state’s contentious recount between Norm Coleman and Al Franken. In 2010, he’s gotten a ton of face time on national television because of his interest in the Presidential race.

But voters don’t seem much to remember him — or they don’t seem much to care. Meanwhile, several other Republicans have lapped Mr. Pawlenty. Compare, for instance, the amount of Google search traffic that Mr. Pawlenty is generating as compared with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, whom almost nobody would have heard of in 2008.

One year ago today — a week after Mr. Christie had won the gubernatorial race in New Jersey — he had a modest advantage of about two-and-a-half times as much search traffic as Mr. Pawlenty, possibly because New Jersey is a more populous state than Minnesota, and is located in a more populous region.

But Mr. Christie’s search traffic has continued to expand, whereas Mr. Palwenty’s has flatlined — and today, Mr. Christie’s is something like seven times higher.

Why? Because Mr. Christie — because of his attitude, his weight, his personality — stands out from the crowd. And because he has a very smart social media strategy, and because he has excellent natural political instincts — lots of reasons, really, but they all boil down to the fact that Mr. Christie has a better brand than Mr. Pawlenty and better intrinsic political aptitude — and he has “gone viral” in a way that Mr. Pawlenty has not.

Other potential candidates who have gained considerable ground in search traffic against Mr. Pawlenty over the past year include Paul Ryan, Mitch Daniels, Mike Pence, and Newt Gingrich, and Jim DeMint. Not all of these candidates will run for President, but several will, as will others from a group that includes names like Rick Perry, Haley Barbour, and Marco Rubio. I would suggest (as Mr. Bernstein also concludes) that several of these candidates have at least as much breakout potential as Mr. Pawlenty, and more so in some cases.

Indeed, Mr. Palwenty is in danger of becoming the Gregg Jefferies of politics: the perpetual prospect who never blossoms into more than a league-average politician. And — although there are a few exceptions (Mr. Kerry might be one) — league-average politicians do not usually become their party’s Presidential nominees.

An earlier version of this post misidentified Jonathan Bernstein. He is not a political science professor at U.C.L.A.

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