WASHINGTON -- Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty's unofficial campaign for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination hit a speed bump of sorts last night. On CNN's Piers Morgan show, Pawlenty blurted out that he is "running for president" even though he's still technically just "exploring" a run -- a slip that led to a "Paw In" splash headline on the Drudge Report.
As semantic gaffes go, this one will have little real consequence for the race. So consider instead the question from the host that prompted Pawlenty's surprise statement:
"There's a poll out only today, a CNN poll, which probably made disturbing reading for you," Morgan said. "Did you ever imagine in your wildest nightmares that you'd see a poll of potential Republican candidates, which had you at 2 percent and Donald Trump at 19 percent?"
Should a candidate like Pawlenty worry about low early standings in the national polls? Not if he wants to follow the example of President Barack Obama. The former Illinois Senator trailed trailed Hillary Clinton, the early Democratic frontrunner last presidential election cycle, in nearly every national poll during 2007, typically by double digit margins. Then Obama won the Iowa caucuses, the South Carolina primary and ultimately surged ahead of Clinton in early 2008.
Obama's presidential run is instructive. True, he did not begin polling in the single digits, but his campaign took a strategic path that required ignoring national polls for nearly a year.
Obama's top advisers knew that the Iowa caucuses were his best strategic opening, due to a combination of Clinton's weaker standing there, his Senate seat representing the neighboring state and the extensive Iowa experience of his campaign team. So the Obama campaign placed what Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson called a "strategic bet" in their book about the 2008 race, The Battle for America. Obama put "almost all his emphasis on the state" and then "gamely stuck with this plan through his low months in the late summer and early fall of 2007 when doubts about his candidacy reached a crescendo," Balz and Johnson wrote.
More often than not, those doubts were due to the lack of traction Obama was getting on Clinton in national polling. According to John Heilman and Mark Halperin in their campaign book Game Change, by the summer of 2007, the doubters even included the future First Lady:
Michelle [Obama] was worried about the national polls: Why aren't we moving? she kept asking. She feared the campaign, with its monomania about Iowa, was failing to build a broad base of support across the map.
By the fall, Balz and Johnson explained, a consistent story line had taken hold in the political media: "Even though [Obama] was raising significant amounts of money and drawing big crowds, he wasn't making up ground in the national polls."
They described an October 2007 discussion the presidential hopeful had with aides about the polling issue:
Obama was meeting with his senior leadership to review the progress -- or lack of it. For weeks, he had been pummeled by donors, friends, journalists, and pundits questioning his strategy. They told him that it was time to start moving his national poll numbers to stop Clinton from gaining an insurmountable advantage; that his strategy of focusing on Iowa was a loser; that it was time to realize he was running a national campaign.
Balz and Johnson wrote about how Obama recalled sharply questioning his campaign manager and national staff:
"I pushed [David] Plouffe on this and I give Plouffe a lot of credit," Obama would tell us later. "I was steady but I did ask him, I said, 'David, we're not running a national strategy, we're getting the you-know-what kicked out of us, and do we know that these national polls are not going to infect what's happening in Iowa?' And he held fast. He said, 'Look, I have confidence in what we're doing there."
The confidence was warranted. Obama resisted pressure to run national advertising in an attempt to move his poll numbers -- despite intense doubt from the political media and his own donors -- and his campaign continued to focus on Iowa and the other early states. Obama's team ultimately succeeded in "nationalizing" the race, but only after they'd won in Iowa and South Carolina and come very close in New Hampshire in January 2008 -- a period when Democrats nationwide were paying far more attention than they had been during 2007.
Of course, Pawlenty's standing and that of the other prospective Republican candidates now mired in single digits may not be completely analogous, since Obama's support in early national polls fell in the low- to mid-twenty percent range. But Obama faced a dominant frontrunner in Hillary Clinton, something that the current Republican field clearly lacks.
The Republican presidential campaign of 2012 will probably have more in common with Democratic contests in 2004, 1992, 1988 and 1976 -- all of which lacked strong, early frontrunners. Some of those races finished with victories by candidates whose national polling started in the low-single digits, including Presidents Jimmy Carter (3.5 percent on the Gallup poll in February 1975) and Bill Clinton (3.0 percent in February 1991) and 1972 Democratic nominee George McGovern (6 percent in August 1971). In 2004, John Kerry started stronger, but fell to just 7 percent in December 2003. All four turned successes in early caucus and primary states into broader recognition and support that enabled their nominations.
Similarly, candidates such as Republican George Herbert Walker Bush in 1980 and Democrat Gary Hart in 1984 also began as virtual unknowns before mounting fierce primary challenges to Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale, the eventual nominees.
Yet despite all this history, pundits and cable news hosts continue to obsess about national poll horse-race numbers even though the Iowa caucuses are still nine months away.
So some advice to Pawlenty or any other candidate or prospective candidate mired in single digits: Ignore the national polls and do what it takes to win Iowa or New Hampshire. The national polls will take care of themselves.