Pawlenty’s Poor Debate Showing Risks Donor Flight

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I agree with the rapidly emerging CW on the debate: Bachmann did quite well, Mitt is unscathed, Newt is still a non-starter and Tim Pawlenty made a mistake in starting a fight before the debate that he wasn’t prepared to wage in the debate. That said, it is still way too early — even in New Hampshire — for this debate to have much real impact on actual voters. New Hampshire and Iowa voters love to change their minds and plenty of future debates will give them that chance. So did this debate mean anything at all in the real context of the race?

Yes, but not for voters. The impact was under the surface. Like a torpedo.

(See the top 10 debate flubs of all time)

Right now there is a fierce underground battle being waged over high dollar campaign donors. If you can’t raise money now, before the voters care, you will not have the resources you need to communicate with them when they do tune in. Organizing multiple states, waging straw polls, flying around raising money and running loads of TV and radio is all very expensive. Without constant fuel, a campaign locomotive grinds to a halt. For lesser known candidates like Tim Pawlenty this can create a cruel feedback loop; you need money to buy your way up in the polls, yet without good poll numbers it is very hard to raise money. Early debates are important because if you get good media reviews, you can aggressively peddle those to old and new donors to raise money.

(How Romney skated to victory)

Like weary troops or early investors in Broadway musicals, donors to candidates registering at 5% in the polls live on hope. Good early process reviews provide that hope. Donor phones come alive. “We’re staring to move up in… IA/NH/The North Barneyville straw poll!!” Sadly for Pawlenty, he did not get the clips he needed last night. Worse, his donor machine will get bad news instead of good. That’s a terror weapon for Huntsman and Romney. I’ll bet Mitt might be making a few calls to top Pawlenty donors today, thanking them for watching, expressing respect for their deep and touching loyalty to his good friend Tim and letting them he know he’d be happy to be their second choice… just in case things, well, don’t work out. We do need to unify, to beat Obama… Donors take those calls. Nearly every big donor has a plan B. Enthusiasm lags. Less pounding on the donor’s business contacts in Detroit or St. Paul for that extra check. The money wheels slow down and the bank account gets thin, just as the Iowa straw poll ramp-up costs start to mount.

(What you missed while not watching the debate)

It’s cruel, but national politics is not for the faint-hearted. No doubt Tim Pawlenty is still a formidable candidate. Other candidates are going to have bad debates and feel pain. Some are already dead men walking, while Pawlenty is certainly alive. But he needs money now and deep under the surface of the campaign noise, in the essential bone and muscle of the his fund-raising organization, that faint noise you can hear today is one rib quietly cracking.

Murphy is a Republican political consultant.