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Tim Pawlenty, homestate politics and the 2012 presidential race

Democrats have seized on a recent independent poll that showed a majority of Minnesotans unlikely to vote for outgoing Gov. Tim Pawlenty should he run for president in 2012.

The Democratic National Committee blasted a series of clips on the Minnesota Public Radio poll to reporters over the past 24 hours and also sent along some of the local television coverage -- pictured above -- to drive home a simple point: Those who know Tpaw best don't think he should be president.

On its face, the argument makes perfect sense -- and the polling supports it. But, a deeper look suggests that there is less than meets the eye here when assessing Pawlenty's political future.

First, the numbers. Fifty three percent of respondents in the MPR poll said they were unlikely to back Pawlenty if he was the Republican nominee for president in 2012. Among electorally critical independents, 57 percent said Tpaw wouldn't get their vote.

And, when matched up against former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, 45 percent opted for Romney as their preferred presidential nominee while 32 percent chose Pawlenty. (Pawlenty crushed former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin by 35 points in a similar hypothetical matchup).

There are three reasons why you should take these numbers with a grain of salt, however.

1. The MPR poll shows that Minnesota voters -- like voters in the rest of the country -- are pessimistic about the performance of their politicians whether Republicans or Democrats. Just 25 percent approved of the job that the Democratic-controlled Minnesota state legislature is doing while 57 percent disapproved. The simple fact is that the economic recession, which has hit the upper Midwest particularly hard, has soured people against government broadly. You'd be hard pressed to find a single incumbent governor anywhere in the country who is prospering amid these economic hard times.

2. Minnesota is not Iowa, New Hampshire or South Carolina. That is, the Minnesota presidential caucus and primary -- yes, they have both -- is not typically in the first tier of states that decide the presidential nomination and, as such, what the state's voters think of Tpaw really matters less in terms of his political future than what people in Iowa think. Remember back to 2004 when polling showed then North Carolina Sen. John Edwards as an increasingly unpopular presence in the Tar Heel State even as he rose in the polls in Iowa -- he finished second -- and made his way onto the national ticket. The one potential knock on Pawlenty's Minnesota numbers is that he might lose the state in a general election. But, Minnesota hasn't voted for a Republican for president since it went for Richard Nixon(!) in 1972 -- the longest active streak of Democratic presidential voting of any state in the country -- so it might be tough to expect Tpaw to deliver it.

3. Home state voters almost always greet the idea that their governor or Senator thinks he or she could be president with suspicion. (Fifty four percent of Minnesotans oppose Pawlenty's out-of-state campaigning in the MPR poll.) That sentiment is usually the result of two rhetorical questions: "Does he think he is better than us?" and "Why does he think he can be president?". Once a candidate commits fully to the presidential race, as Pawlenty will almost certainly do shortly after the midterm election, there tends to be a rallying effect behind the "home state boy makes good" storyline. To be sure, there are plenty of Democrats, Independents and even some Republicans in Minnesota who don't know and never will see Tpaw as presidential material. But, as we noted above, he doesn't need those people to win the nomination.

All of that is not to dismiss the MPR poll. Make no mistake: Pawlenty would rather be running as the beloved soon-to-be-former governor of Minnesota rather than one with the middling ratings that this survey shows.

But, it's also wrong to read too much into the poll. Pawlenty -- and his political team -- would gladly trade in some approval points in Minnesota in exchange for some name identification points in Iowa.

By Chris Cillizza  | September 2, 2010; 4:50 PM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2012  
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