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August 18th, 2011

Lessons Learned by the Pawlenty Campaign

When former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty abandoned his presidential run after a disappointing third place finish at the Iowa Straw Poll in Ames, he continued a trend in which the third place finisher at the event never makes it to caucus day.

In the weeks leading up to the Straw Poll, the Pawlenty campaign tried to spin the media that a third place finish would be good for the campaign.  They insisted that a third place finish would be a favorable sign since the Des Moines Register poll showed Pawlenty in low single digits and trailing candidates like Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain.

A third place finish in Ames has been a death nail in the history of the straw poll.  In 1999, Elizabeth Dole dropped out of the race after finishing a distant third to George W. Bush and Steve Forbes.  In 2007, Senator Sam Brownback finished in the third position less than 400 votes away from Huckabee, but his campaign would never see caucus day either.

The notion that Pawlenty just needed a third place finish was always absurd.  Beating only Rick Santorum and Herman Cain was never going to give his candidacy the shot in the arm it needed, especially with donors who are needed to fund a campaign.  In many respects, Pawlenty did the right thing by pulling the plug on his campaign immediately following the results in Ames.  Hanging around wasn’t going to be fair to his staff or donors.

While his candidacy may be over, there are plenty of things that we can learn from Pawlenty’s short-lived candidacy.  Like so many other campaigns, managing expectations is not just what you say to the press.  As we saw with Pawlenty, a campaign’s actions can make one’s expectations unmanageable.

Having watched the Pawlenty campaign from start to finish in Iowa, there are a number of things that I think led to his early exit.  The following are some of the things that the Pawlenty campaign could have done differently.

Define/Insulate:  Pawlenty was the first candidate to officially enter the race.  As such, he had a number of advantages of which he could have taken advantage.  First and foremost, Pawlenty should have been more aggressive in traveling the state and meeting with activists in various communities in the early stages of his campaign.

Pawlenty got to more places in Iowa than Michele Bachmann did, but he needed to introduce himself in person to as many Iowans as possible.  Doing so would have insulated him from either a poor debate performance like he had in New Hampshire, or the entrance of another candidate to the race like Bachmann.  When the national media declared Pawlenty to be a wimp following the New Hampshire CNN debate, those people who had yet to meet Pawlenty were more likely to believe what the media is saying about the candidate.

Michele Bachmann is likely going to experience the same thing following the straw poll.  Yes, she won the event, but there are many areas of the state to which she has yet to travel.  That has left her susceptible to being badly damaged by a major gaffe or negative narrative.  It has also opened the door for additional candidates like Texas Governor Rick Perry to see Iowa as a big opportunity instead of a lost cause.

Had Pawlenty aggressively campaigned across the state early this year, he could have insulated himself from his poor New Hampshire debate performance, which, looking back, was the beginning of the end of his campaign.

Big Staff=Big Expectations:  There is no doubt that Pawlenty was taking the straw poll seriously.  His campaign employed ten field staffers in addition to a campaign manager, deputy campaign manager, political director, and a coalitions director.  On top of all that, he also had a consultant team that included Chuck Larson, Jr., Karen Slifka, Ed Failor, Jr., Eric Woolson, Nicole Schlinger, and Sarah Huckabee-Sanders.

The size and scope of the Pawlenty campaign rivaled what Mitt Romney built in Iowa four years earlier.  Just like Romney’s 2008 campaign, the media soon caught on to the size of operation Pawlenty was running and assigned him expectations fitting of the size of his campaign.  Even after his disastrous New Hampshire debate, Pawlenty kept on building his expectations.  He announced his campaign co-chairs and other endorsements, as well as the hiring of Sarah Huckabee-Sanders, the daughter of 2008 Iowa caucus winner Mike Huckabee.

Not only were all of the staff and consultants expensive, but also they were basically ineffective.  Both Rick Santorum and Herman Cain had far fewer staff and consultants, yet Pawlenty only beat Santorum by 636 votes and Cain by 837 votes, and neither of them ran a TV or radio ad in advance of the straw poll like Pawlenty did.

Just like Romney four years earlier, Pawlently let his expectations get out of check and paid the price.

The Golden Circle Strategy: Pawlenty spent the bulk of his time campaigning in the areas around Ames and Des Moines.  According to the Des Moines Register candidate tracker, Pawlenty made 38 visits in Polk, Dallas, and Story counties.  Meanwhile, he only made only one stop in Scott and Dubuque counties.  He only made six visits to northwest Iowa, a conservative stronghold in the state.

On paper, it makes sense to campaign hard in the areas around Ames, but in doing so, he ceded certain areas of the state to other candidates who were willing to campaign there. With ten field staffers, it’s hard to fathom that a campaign would have adopted such a strategy.  They had plenty of people to work the entire state, but simply chose not to.

If Ames was a test, the Pawlenty campaign chose to cram for it instead of taking the time to actually learn the subject matter.  The straw poll is a great tool that campaigns can use to organize the entire state, but most of the campaigns just wanted to pass the straw poll test and in doing so, have left many areas of the state wide open for a candidates like Rick Perry or even Mitt Romney to exploit.

True Believers: Putting together a campaign staff is one of the most difficult things to do.  Finding people who really believe in the candidate can be very hard.  Pawlenty had some true believers on his staff.  They are always easy to spot, but many of his consultants had other clients paying them for their services at the straw poll and caucuses.  It is always difficult to serve two masters.  The brain trust that Pawlenty hired was impressive, but he never had their undivided attention.  Campaigns need true believers, not just mercenaries.

Passion: I found Pawlenty to be extremely likeable and knowledgeable, but half way through his question and answer segments, I’d start staring off into space.  Sure, I had heard him speak a number of times, but he only really captavited me once, and that was in a one-on-one interview.  There wasn’t much to disagree with Pawlenty on, but there was never much to get you fired up about either.  He’s a nice, thoughtful guy, but he failed to inspire people.

Many will say that Pawlenty was a poor candidate.  I disagree.  I think Pawlenty ran a poor campaign. Had he been more aggressive out of the gate in getting in front of as many Iowans as possible, I think he could have insulated himself from many of his problems.  Instead of campaigning in Huxley, Johnston, Altoona, Ankeny, Des Moines, West Des Moines, Waukee, and the other towns surrounding the Des Moines metro, he should have visited places like Rock Rapids, Davenport, Clinton, and Dubuque.

Sure, those communities are a ways from Ames, but people actually look forward to meeting candidates when you get outside of the Des Moines area.  Pawlenty’s easy-going persona would have been his strength instead of his weakness.

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About the Author

Craig Robinson

Craig Robinson is the founder and editor-in-chief of, a political news and commentary site he launched in March of 2009. Robinson’s political analysis is respected across party lines, which has allowed him to build a good rapport with journalist across the country.

Robinson has also been featured on Iowa Public Television’s Iowa Press, ABC’s This Week, and other local television and radio programs. Campaign’s & Elections Magazine recognized Robinson as one of the top influencers of the 2012 Iowa Caucuses.

A 2013 Politico article sited Robinson and as the “premier example” of Republican operatives across the country starting up their own political news sites. His website has been repeatedly praised as the best political blog in Iowa by the Washington Post, and in January of 2015, Politico included him on the list of local reporters that matter in the early presidential states.

Robinson got his first taste of Iowa politics in 1999 while serving as Steve Forbes’ southeast Iowa field coordinator where he was responsible for organizing 27 Iowa counties. In 2007, Robinson served as the Political Director of the Republican Party of Iowa where he was responsible for organizing the 2007 Iowa Straw Poll and the 2008 First-in-the-Nation Iowa Caucuses. Following the caucuses, he created his own political news and commentary site,

Robinson is also the President of Global Intermediate, a national mail and political communications firm with offices in West Des Moines, Iowa, and Washington, D.C. Robinson utilizes his fundraising and communications background to service Global’s growing client roster with digital and print marketing.

Robinson is a native of Goose Lake, Iowa, and a 1999 graduate of St. Ambrose University in Davenport, where he earned degrees in history and political science. Robinson lives in Ankeny, Iowa, with his wife, Amanda, and son, Luke. He is an active member of the Lutheran Church of Hope.

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