Monday, June 13, 2011

Debate! (and the Case Against Bachmann)

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'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.


  1. I think you are underestimating the impact of the Tea Party and overestimating the impact of the "establishment" in current Republican Party politics (and perhaps underestimating just how right-wing the Republican establishment is right now). Bachmann has a good shot at being the Tea Party favorite. I would say the Tea Party represents over half of the Republican electorate, and has proven willing to thumb their noses at the Republican "establishment" in the last couple of years (to the extent that the establishment has not been taken over by the Tea Party).

    Yes, Bachmann could fail to run a good national campaign (same is true for every candidate). But she is telegenic, has the kind of personal story (home schooling, 20-odd foster children) that would appeal to Republic voters, appears to have good political instincts, doesn't have the Romney/Pawlenty policy baggage, has the potential to run a web based grassroots campaign, has room to grow in the polls (low name recognition) at the right time (late fall), and she will have natural appeal to a large chunk of the Republican electorate.

    Her path to the nomination is (1) become the Tea Party candidate (Cain appears to be her main rival, Perry and Palin will be rivals if they get in), and (2) win the final battle with Romney, or Romney and Pawlenty, with at least half the primary electorate inclined to support her unless persuaded otherwise.

    The odds may be against her, but it's hardly implausible.

  2. " 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? "

    She stands out by being the only female. GOP women can vote for her without having to pretend she is competent - unlike Palin. She did not look flaky tonight and I doubt most voters care if she has clout in the House.

    There are certainly groups in the party who don't want her. There also groups in the party who consider Romney an unacceptable heretic.

  3. Considering she's been able to raise a large amount of money for a House race just last year -- on par with many Senate campaigns -- I'm not sure that limited fundraising is a plausible reason to write-off Bachmann's presidential ambitions.

  4. Michelle Bachmann is a reasonable reason to write off Michelle Bachmann.
    Justin Buchler has a really fun paper he's been working on, where he types in a politician's name into google, and he sees what epithets google suggests for them. Go try it with's really quite fun. Try "Michelle Bachmann ba", "Michelle Bachmann i", "..c", "...n" ....heck, try almost any letter and you'll get back the fact that this woman clearly says things that get people searching the internet, and never in a good light. Simply put, the woman says absolutely crazy things.

  5. I don't think there's any way Bachmann is the nominee--she absolutely cannot win a general election and there are too many party leaders AND Republican primary voters (including some who like her but don't think she can win) who will not let that happen.

    But that doesn't mean we shouldn't "Take Bachmann Seriously" in another sense, i.e. that she might well run competitively and have a real impact on the overall contest, which would make her campaign worthy of serious analysis. The anonymous commenter lays out some of the main reasons why this might well be the case so I won't repeat them.

    Candidates who are not going to win can alter the shape of a race significantly. Mike Huckabee was never going to be the '08 nominee, but if he's not there and doing well it's entirely possible that Romney actually wins. Gene McCarthy wasn't going to get the nod to face Nixon in '68, but his impact on the Dem race in '68 was multifaceted. The moderate McCain of 2000 made it easier for (or arguably necessary for) George W. Bush to solidify himself as a strong social conservative.

    Similarly Bachmann might effect the race in any number of ways. If Palin is truly on the fence about running--and she might be, who knows what goes on in her brain--a surging Bachmann might convince her to stay out (or jump in--again who knows with Ms. Palin). Press and attention for Bachmann is probably bad for Pawlenty, at the most basic level because they are both Minnesotans and T-Paw cannot get less play than another candidate from his state and still look credible as some sort of frontrunner. That's the kind of thing that could become a problem for him very quickly and not really go away, particularly if he continues to not do well with the whole "money" aspect of the campaign.

    Probably most importantly, a strong Bachmann surge--at any point really--is almost certainly great for Romney (apparently Romney's folks were talking up the debate as a win for "Romney and Bachmann," no doubt gleefully). If there seems to be any risk of her doing well, many will flock to Romney, including some who might be more ideologically aligned with Bachmann but are fairly pragmatic about what kind of nominee they need.

    The uber-conservative parts of the GOP base, which are obviously substantial and somewhat multi-faceted, will either develop a preferred candidate or not. The way that unfolds will be important. Bachmann certainly has the potential to fill that role, and I thought she did quite well tonight and took a solid step in that direction, though her campaign also has the very real potential to implode four weeks from now for any number of reasons.

    She won't get nominated--thank the gods--but anyone following the twists and turns of this race should take her seriously, certainly more so than Cain, Gingrich, Santorum, Paul, or Huntsman and, based on tonight's debate, perhaps even more than Pawlenty. If Rick Perry and/or Paul Ryan jump in then it's a whole new ballgame.

  6. In any past Presidential election, I'd agree with everything you say. But considering the radical mood of the GOP base and the (currently announced) competition, Bachmann may have a lot better chance than would otherwise seem possible. Somebody, after all, has to win the nomination. If after the first few nomination contests, it's down to Romney, Pawlenty, and Bachmann, why couldn't she do very well in socially conservative Southern contests while the other 2 split the other states?

  7. How can the Republicans even entertain in any serious nature the rantings of this Right Wing McCarthist politician. She does not do well under pressure and does the duck and cover when she has a hard question. She is the biggest embarrassment to ever come from Minnesota.


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