Ah, the Republicans are debating again, this time with half the libertarians but with the Mittster and four, count 'em four, conservatives who I've been calling implausible nominees. My general "what to watch for" is over at Greg's place, but I'll take the opportunity here to talk a little Michele Bachmann.
I've noticed that there's another round of people saying that we should Take Bachmann Seriously, sparked at least to some extent because she handled an interview with Stephen Moore in the WSJ reasonably well. I continue to dissent, although it depends a bit on what the claims are. It's certainly possible that Bachmann could finish top three in Iowa; indeed, if Perry (and Jeb and Palin) don't wind up in, then it's certain that one of the groups that I'm calling implausible will finish top three in Iowa. I've argued that I think her chances of winning there are not great, but they aren't zero, either.
But as far as winning the nomination...it's no coincidence that no one with qualifications remotely resembling Bachmann's has come even close to getting a nomination.
There are several things involved. One is that running a nationwide campaign really is a different animal than running a campaign with an electorate of under a million people. Another is that the press scrutiny of almost all House campaigns is negligible; yes, statewide candidates receiving nothing resembling the press attention that a national campaign gets, but at least there's something that's at least in the same type of experience. Statewide elected officials also bring better developed fundraising networks to the campaign -- perhaps not quite as important in the age of online fundraising, but still at least somewhat meaningful.
The second part of why I think Bachmann's highly unlikely to win is, as I've argued before, that organized groups really care a lot about presidential nominations, and are very unlikely to support a candidate who they have little confidence in if she wins -- either that she would be a strong candidate in November, or she'll be a good president, or that she'll be a reliable ally. Of course, that latter problem is hardly unique to Bachmann in the current GOP field, and there are several groups or factions who would be quite confident that she would be on their side. But Bachmann's reputation as flaky is definitely a problem for those who would have to accept her nomination. It's worth noting that she doesn't appear to have any clout in the House and she hasn't shown any sides of being a good inside player, which might indicate that her cable news persona was mostly an act that insiders don't take seriously. Not that every nominee has to be an insider favorite; John McCain, for one, certainly wasn't. But McCain, everyone believed, was at least likely to be a strong general election candidate, something that presumably no one really believes about Bachmann.
The other problem (and you may notice that there are really a whole lot of problems here) with the case for Bachmann is that it's not all that likely that she really can achieve the kind of issue separation that might override all of these other problems. By all accounts, neither Mitt Romney nor Tim Pawlenty is going to allow any significant gaps to pop up between themselves and movement conservatives or Tea Party activists.
So. Could Bachmann shine in a debate? Sure -- although there's no guarantee that she can stand out from a panel of other conservatives, especially since Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain, and Rick Santorum all have strong incentives to out-crazy her and each other. Could she generate some enthusiasm at the grass roots? Yup, with the same caveat.
But what we don't know is how she'll hold up the first time someone in her campaign gets caught leaking something ugly to a reporter; how she will handle it when she gets attacked, instead of automatically supported, by GOP-aligned media (and, yes, if she starts doing well that's going to happen at some point). The odds are strong that those things could trip her up, because the evidence over the years is that they do in fact tend to trip people up. Even more crucial is that we don't how many Republican major players simply wouldn't support her no matter what. The nature of these things suggests that the answer to that last one is going to be "too many," and therefore even if she beats the odds and runs a terrific campaign, the chances of anything coming of it are very, very slim.