TIM PAWLENTY, the former two-term governor of Minnesota who prematurely ended his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination on Sunday, did not lose an election. Nor was he out of money. He quit because he did not meet expectations in a straw poll. The true losers are Republican primary voters, who will miss out on a smart candidate for a dumb reason.
The Ames, Iowa, straw poll is about as insignificant a measure of presidential support as one can imagine; it rewards candidates rich enough to bus in supporters and pay their entry fees (such as Mitt Romney in 2008), and those with fervid ideological backers (such as this year’s favorites, Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul). Theoretically, it serves as the first critical assessment of each candidate’s organization, a test that shouldn’t much matter so early in the process, but that can drive out those who do poorly.
The straw poll is not an election, or even a caucus. It’s a Republican Party fundraiser where the right to vote costs $30. Campaigns who choose to compete - Romney and Texas Governor Rick Perry smartly did not - buy tickets in bulk and distribute them to would-be supporters. Then they whip up enthusiasm by inviting participants to pig out on barbeque or listen to country-music concerts in air-conditioned tents. By finishing a distant third in this carnival, Pawlenty felt obliged to end his campaign; a lot of corn dogs died in vain.
Pawlenty was a credible contender. Unlike those who are showcasing their values and economic theories, Pawlenty built his campaign around people, working-class voters he called “Sam’s Club Republicans.’’ In a field that is light in governing experience, he had spent eight years wrestling with a more liberal legislature in a state whose varied political passions mirror those of the country.
Pawlenty wasn’t a perfect candidate - or even, necessarily, the best option for the GOP. That’s an assessment voters should make. Instead, he felt compelled to prove himself in a bogus forum and, when he lost, looked like a chump. It’s too bad, because he had more to offer.