Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Incredibly Weak Case for Taking Bachmann Seriously

Is it remotely possible that Michele Bachmann could win the GOP nomination? Sure. Has anything every happened that would indicate she is a viable candidate? No.

I hate to keep writing this, but normally perfectly sane people -- such as, this time, Jonathan Chait -- drag me back into it. Chait's post is a nice one at demonstrating just where the flaw are in people's thinking about the nomination process.

Here's Chait's case. He's previously decided that Mitt Romney can't be nominated, because of health care (and I suppose religion and abortion. He's also decided that Haley Barbour shouldn't be taken seriously because, well, he's southern and a lobbyist and all that. This has led Chait to settle on Tim Pawlenty as the likely nominee, at least should the field look more or less how it looks now.

But here comes Bachmann, and she could win in Iowa. If so, wouldn't that (as Josh Marshall claims) knock Pawlenty out? And absent Pawlenty, no matter what GOP leaders think, perhaps Bachmann could run the table just as Howard Dean almost did in 2004, if he hadn't imploded, as Chait says, just before Iowa.

Now, I really don't want to pick on Chait, and I want to be fair: he's hardly predicting that Bachmann will win, just that she shouldn't be totally written off. But as I said, I think there's a lot of stuff in his post that's widely shared.

So how strong is his case? It's full of holes.

First: Chait's case is pretty much entirely built on the idea that only Pawlenty has a real chance of winning support from "both the activist base and the party elites." He could be right -- but then again, that logic would have disqualified not only nominee John McCain last time around, but also runners-up Romney and Huck.

But if Chait is correct about Romney (and Barbour) -- that they will be completely rejected by GOP voters -- then it can't also be correct that Pawlenty can be knocked out by Iowa. After all, in the unlikely event that Bachmann does win Iowa, someone has to finish second, right? A Bachmann-Pawlenty exacta doesn't hurt Pawlenty nearly as much as it hurts every other candidate who couldn't beat either of them, and makes Pawlenty the consensus mainstream candidate going forward. Indeed, I think the same would be true, say, of a Bachmann-Paul-Pawlenty trifecta.

If, on the other hand, Pawlenty finishes back in the pack, then that means someone else has become the top candidate in the mainstream category, whether it's Romney, or Barbour, or someone else. The key here is that if it's Romney or Barbour, then Chait is basically proven wrong that Republican voters won't support that candidate.

Either way, someone is going to come out of Iowa as a viable mainstream candidate. Probably two someones, in fact. Even if Bachmann does manage to win there.

But really, I think the key to this is to go back to Chait's believe that Howard Dean would have won in 2004 but for a pre-Iowa implosion. I do think that by fall 2003, many Democratic leaders started wondering if, perhaps, Dean held some sort of magic that might help defeat George W. Bush. However, as Chait said, others remained quite hostile. That's the context in which Dean "imploded." The key here is that all gaffes are not alike; a gaffe is amplified or not by party elites and partisan media. When Dean made mistakes, they were fully amplified, finally reaching the point in which even non-mistakes were amplified.

Bachmann isn't going to convince GOP leaders that she has access to any special magic, and she certainly isn't going to go through a bunch of debates and other appearances without making mistakes. When she does, and party leaders believe that she needs to be taken down, she will be taken down.

One more point...it's important, when thinking about this stuff, not to think too narrowly about party leaders. Chait notes some failures by party leaders -- the effort to impose Wes Clark on the Democrats is one, and he could have added the Fred Thompson fiasco in 2008 for the GOP. But in those cases it was only a subset of party leaders acting. It's hard to see anyone in the GOP leadership, at least outside of its media wing, that would have any interest in having Michele Bachmann as nominee.

Could she win anyway? Well, in politics, you hate to say 100%. What I can say is that there's no precedent under the current system for a junior Member of the House to even be a halfway viable candidate -- and no precedent for someone as far off the party reservation to capture its most important prize. It isn't gonna happen.


  1. no precedent for someone as far off the party reservation to capture its most important prize

    How is Bachmann "off the GOP reservation"? In the few places where her policy positions differ significantly from those the other candidates, they differ in a way that should please GOP primary voters. Otherwise, policy-wise, she's just a standard tea-bagging, global-warming-denying, birther Republican.

    Sure, sane people like you and me may think Bachmann is a loon. But to GOP primary voters in Iowa, she just might be the only sufficiently right-wing candidate who seems authentic and trustworthy enough to vote for. (Since the others have been all over the map, ideologically speaking.)

    And if she can inspire the kind of grass-roots excitement and enthusiasm that Palin (and Obama, for that matter) generate, then I'd say she has a strong chance at the nomination. Just because it never happened before doesn't mean it can't happen in 2012.

  2. Bachmann (or Palin, or any of the other more colorful candidates the political press loves to cover) has no more chance of getting the nod from Republican leaders than Buchanan or Forbes in '96, Paul or Huckabee in 2008, or Keyes in 2000.

    Those who think that Romney isn't exciting the base enough, or even those who are absolutely convinced that the party won't, can't put another Bush on the ticket, should remember that old, tired Dole wasn't a darling of "the base" either, nor was old, tired McCain. And the base's unhappiness with the first Bush wasn't at all a problem for the second. So, while I would at this point put my money on Romney, I don't assume their unhappiness with W makes a run by Jeb -- in many ways the ideal candidate from the leadership's perspective -- impossible. (Money and name recognition pose no problem for Bush --he can wait quite awhile to throw his hat in the ring, and in fact would benefit from doing so.)

  3. >And if she can inspire the kind of grass-roots excitement and enthusiasm that Palin (and Obama, for that matter) generate, then I'd say she has a strong chance at the nomination.

    One of the big misconceptions about the rise of Obama is that his candidacy was largely a grassroots phenomenon. For example, it is a myth--perpetuated recently by Obama himself--that most of his campaign money came from small donors. Furthermore, despite his reputation of hailing from the left flank of the party, he had a strong appeal to independents, a quality that Bachmann almost certainly does not share. He did have strong grassroots support, and that support was important, but he also had the backing of party insiders, something I highly doubt Bachmann can acquire.

  4. regarding dean, sure, yes, some insiders hated him (Me?). But plenty others were scared of his small dollar and volunteer hordes.

    What Iowa did was show how colossally stupid the top of the campaign was, and, well, his general instability didn't help.

  5. Thanks for the analysis, Jonathan. Just to add a bit, it's important we don't forget the importance of the "money primary". IIRC, although Dean raised a decent amount of internet money, he was going to be strapped for cash (and thus for campaign organization and ads) for Super Tuesday even if he'd looked good coming out of Iowa.

    By contrast, Obama had raised enough money by 9/30/07 that it was clear he'd be able to compete beyond the first few contests...if he did well enough to make it past Iowa and New Hampshire.

    Bachmann's worth taking seriously if for no other reason than her proven ability to raise money. That means she can survive a setback or two.

    Romney's in that category too. I agree that if Pawlenty gets a ticket out of Iowa (i.e., finishes in the top 3), and can raise money, then he's got a shot---as does any other candidate who meets those criteria.

  6. ...there's no precedent under the current system for a junior Member of the House to even be a halfway viable candidate.

    People plumping for a long-lived Bachmann candidacy, never mind a Bachmann nomination, think they're looking at a black swan when they're actually looking at a giant turkey.

  7. Let's not go compounding myths, though.

    Dean crashed BEFORE Iowa. The polling began to take a nosedive in November/December, and the endorsements got pretty decisive in Kerry's favor by then, too.

    The Dean-loses-it-in-Iowa idea is a media creation. They missed Dean's decline because, let's face it, they kinda phoned in their coverage in late December like most people phone it in at their jobs. But Dean simply didn't have good organization in IA, elite backing, and by the time of caucuses, voter support. Then comes the scream. Yes, that certainly played a role (more precisely: cable news playing the scream (CNN: over 600 times!) over the next week while talking about him being psycho did). But, the scream was him rallying the troops because he had finished third. The scream is a symptom and a cause. What IA was for Dean was really just the nail in the coffin. His campaign had run out of steam a month earlier.

  8. Matt,

    Yes; was I unclear about that (I called it a pre-Iowa implosion)? Chait, I think, got it right also.

    But it can't hurt to point it out; Dean stalled before Iowa, and once it was clear he had no access to magic, those party leaders who were considering betting on his magic bailed rapidly -- and that all happened going into the Iowa vote. After the vote, it was just piling on.

  9. I remember being at the '04 caucus for a small Maine town, and on the first pass -- before thresholds and switching tak effect -- everyone --everyone -- standing in the Kerry corner was a town or state elected official, had been a town or state elected official, or was also running for office in the fall.

    That's when I knew Dean's goose was cooked.

  10. "standing in the Kerry corner was a town or state elected official, had been a town or state elected official, or was also running for office in the fall."

    Ah, yes. The magic of Dewey Square and astro-turfing!

  11. I don't agree with Chait about Bachmann over the primary long haul, but I do think she can win Iowa. And while I think a non-crazy candidate could emerge, I'm ready to bet the rent money it won't be Barbour.

    Those of us who are Northern urban ethnics can be lulled into thinking that Republicans love anyone who's unlike us, but even Republican primary voters have tended to resoundingly reject scowling, porcine Southern Big Daddy types -- think John Connally or Phil Gramm.

    Beyond that, Barbour is absolutely the worst candidate in the field at stroking tea party/talk radio/Fox News pleasure centers -- much worse than Romney or Pawlenty. He just doesn't realize what the GOP electorate wants, or he arrogantly thinks it doesn't matter.

    I say he won't top 5% in any contest.

  12. I would also be interested in Bernstein elaborating on how Bachmann is 'far off the party reservation'.

  13. We in Minnesota are incredulous the press is even talking about Michelle Bachmann with any seriousness. Outside of her fervent base of admirers, she literally can not be discussed wit a straight face by anyone. She is a total crackpot, not to mention a demagogue. In a general election she would lose Minnesota by a landslide. Trust us, we know.

  14. What Paul said. People often forget just how rigorous a presidential campaign is. It is a lot of hard work and a pretty amazing test of ability, endurance, charisma, organizing, etc. Plus remarkable media scrutiny. It isn't a perfect way to pick a president, but it could be a lot worse.

    Bachmann just doesn't have what it takes. She is really, really dumb. She is about as capable of winning the nomination as I am of making an NBA roster. And I'm 5'9", 35 years old and haven't played organized basketball since the 8th grade.

  15. I think what Bachmann will be in 2012 is a King-Maker. I think that she will be a VP for winner of the nomination. My guess is the Newt will ask her to be his VP early on and together they will win the nomination, lose the election and then Bachmann will be in a strong position for a 2016 run.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Who links to my website?