Is Tim Pawlenty’s campaign, which only a couple months ago appeared to be quite healthy, suddenly dead?

To answer that question properly, it’s important to remember that there are two tracks toward the nomination. One is about mass electorates; the other, about a smaller group of party actors. And while both matter, it’s the second group, the smaller one, that usually is the most important.

That’s why I think that Nate Silver’s otherwise clever post about Pawlenty as the “RC Cola” of Republican candidates isn’t all that helpful. Silver’s point is that Pawlenty’s marketing dilemma is that his advantage of being broadly acceptable within the party brings with it a real difficulty in becoming the first choice of any group. Silver is right about that, in terms of Pawlenty’s appeal right now to large electorates, and he’s also right that Pawlenty has yet to figure out how to solve that problem.

However, while any candidate must ultimately succeed with voters, we’re still far from that point. We’re on the other track now — the candidates are trying to appeal to that smaller group. Call them “elites” if you like, but it’s not just a handful of Washington insiders; we’re talking also talking about activists, big-time donors, party-aligned media personalities and interest groups . . . it’s a fairly large group, although nowhere near as large as primary (let alone November) electorates. Some of them may be “insiders” in the way that people usually use that word, but many are not — indeed, many of them think of themselves as opponents of those insiders. So just think of them as party actors.

Mass-marketing metaphors are the wrong way to think about how those party actors go about choosing their candidate. These are people who take politics very seriously; they’re going to carefully research policy positions if that’s what they care about, and in many cases they will meet with the candidate personally, or at least attend events (or watch them on C-SPAN!). Not only that, but these “shoppers” don’t necessarily work in isolation; they talk to each other and signal to each other, about which candidates they support — and perhaps more important, which ones they find unacceptable. In that sort of market, differentiation is still quite important, but concerns that a candidate will get lost without a spiffy advertising slogan are less urgent.

 This doesn’t mean that Pawlenty’s poor polling performance doesn’t hurt him — party actors don’t want to bet on a loser, and so it’s important for Pawlenty to maintain the impression that he’s a viable candidate. And there have been candidates who seemed to do well among party actors but just never caught fire with the larger primary electorate. Still, what matters to Pawlenty for now is how well he’s doing at getting endorsements (seems to be fairly solid), raising money (not so hot there), and generally remaining a major player with party actors. If he can do that, there’s still plenty of time for voters to catch up.