Saturday, October 22, 2011

Michele Bachmann's Meltdown

The Iowa presidential caucuses of January 3, 2012 are less than 75 days away and their outcome are more in doubt today than ever. What once looked like a certain victory for Michele Bachmann now looks less and less likely, and talk of her presidential prospects sounds more like a deathwatch especially in light of the resignation of her New Hampshire staff.

August 13, 2011 seems so distant now. Barely nine weeks ago Bachmann surprised many by winning the Ames straw poll. She was on top of the world, leading the GOP pack as the darling of the Tea Party. But then came the collapse. Rick Perry entered the race eating at her conservative base. Bachmann was unable to move to the center given her rhetoric and positions, and she disavowed any intention to do so. Media attention and scrutiny mounted, missteps and statements about HPV and retardation damaged her, and the cycle of decline began.

In the last few weeks numerous problems have mounted. Declining poll numbers followed with dismal debate performances that revealed no more than canned vacuous answers. All this was followed by poor third quarter fund raising and campaign debt and now her New Hampshire staff has stepped out.

Is Bachmann done?
Essentially, yes. As noted in several of my blogs, her campaign rested upon an Iowa strategy that is faltering even now. The belief before was that a victory in Iowa would be the springboard to success in other states such as New Hampshire and South Carolina. But she never did much to campaign there and her presence and infrastructure there was always weak. But now with Nevada and Florida moving up their delegate selection, Bachmann’s campaign was damaged even more because she did not have staff there to help her. The point here is that the Iowa strategy presupposed that she had money and structure in place in other states to take advantage of the Iowa victory. But she did not have this and thus, even if Iowa does still become a victory for her, she will be unable to take advantage of it. (Here are similar comments of mine in a story about Bachmann).

But now she is losing even in Iowa. Evidence is seen in the polls and in other candidates now returning to it to campaign with the belief they can win the state. She is falling back in the pack. She increasingly looks more like Rick Santorium than a leader in Iowa. She gives speeches to a few faithful but continues to slip in the polls. She has little new to say and the buzz she once had is gone. She has been unable to take advantage of Perry’s drop and instead Cain has benefitted. While potentially she can recover to win Iowa, the new January 3 date gives her less time to do that. Thus, an earlier Iowa date gives Bachmann too little time to recover and her dismal fund raising and failure to plan beyond Iowa make it unlikely she can go much further beyond Iowa.

Lessons Learned
What we learn from Bachmann’s collapse in part is that her great congressional campaign machine was unable to transition to a presidential level. You cannot win the presidency with a $40 average campaign contribution and an unwillingness to grow and expand a base, especially when others are also competing for that base. Bachmann took for granted that she owned the Tea Party–never do that.

In addition, her electoral skills were always vastly over-rated. She had a plus-6 GOP district in Minnesota–a district tailored to her. Her victories were over weak opponents or took place in the banner Republican year of 2010. In many ways, she looked stronger than she really was and perhaps she believed she was the star that the media had declared. While I always thought she had a chance to do well as an Iowa candidate and perhaps beyond, what is most striking is how amateurish she turned out to be as a candidate. That is the product of never facing a serious primary for Congress nor a serious contest in the general election.

Bachmann’s Clouded Future
So what next for Bachmann? Does her December book even have value now? Hard to say and it is unlikely it will save her campaign. Do we see her move on to CNN or another network with her own show? Her increasingly collapsing campaign makes that even less of an option.

Does Bachmann return to run for her congressional seat again? Maybe, she has until June to decide. But redistricting uncertainty and the prospects of a less friendly set of lines for the sixth district pose challenges. Moreover, the worse her presidential campaign looks the more it makes her potentially vulnerable to a primary challenge. Bachmann has never attracted big donors and if she were to run for Congress again her small donors may be tapped out or unwilling to give. She is in a bad situation right now and her options are ticking away along with the clock to Iowa.

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