Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) had a lot to be happy about as she kicked off her presidential campaign earlier this week in her birthplace, Waterloo, IA: She performed well at the presidential debate held June 13 in New Hampshire, and over the weekend she finished a close second in the first Des Moines Register poll of the Iowa caucus.
But an eventual victory in Iowa by Bachmann, a Tea Party favorite, might end up making the decidedly non-Tea Party candidate, ex-MA Gov. Mitt Romney, quite happy too.
The aforementioned Register poll, released Saturday evening, showed a virtual dead heat at the top of the field in Iowa: Romney 23%, Bachmann 22%. Ex-MN Gov. Tim Pawlenty was way behind at 6%.
Pawlenty, who has appeared to be Romney’s most serious challenger for the nomination, has not been able to transfer his considerable assets on paper — reasonably successful governor of key swing state, potential appeal to both social and economic conservatives — to reality. It is too early to write him off, but his months of campaigning have not translated into actual support. If his weakness continues, important endorsers and donors will go looking for someone else.
If Bachmann eclipses Pawlenty altogether in the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses, that could knock him out of the race at the very beginning.
That said, Bachmann’s early success has been relatively easy; sustaining it will be harder. Bachmann has not yet had to deal with the full force of the press, but the stronger she gets, the more she will be covered. As of Wednesday, Politifact, the widely respected fact-checker, had checked 27 Bachmann statements. It judged 18 to be false and only one as completely true. To many Republicans, media criticism is a badge of honor, but repeated gaffes — such as when she said that Lexington and Concord of American Revolutionary lore were in New Hampshire (they are in Massachusetts), that John Quincy Adams was a Founding Father (his father was) or that John Wayne was born in Waterloo (his hometown was Winterset) — give opponents on the left and right plenty of fodder.
Bachmann also won no friends among members of her own party when she offered a “Tea Party” rebuttal to President Obama’s State of the Union speech in January, stepping all over the official Republican response from Rep. Paul Ryan (WI). And if you are the frontrunner in Iowa, you can be sure that your Republican presidential opponents will aim a great deal of their fire at you, sooner or later.
She is certainly not the establishment candidate, although the “establishment” might not have a horse in this race yet. If it did, there wouldn’t have been so much agitation for IN Gov. Mitch Daniels to run, nor would there be a continuing desire for some other white knight to ride in and save the field (NJ Gov. Chris Christie? TX Gov. Rick Perry?).
Being from the establishment might not actually be much of a boon to any candidate. Especially in the era of the Tea Party, and especially in Iowa, where the electorate is deeply conservative and the views of Beltway powers are insignificant. Nearly half (44%) of those surveyed in the Register poll said they would not even consider backing a candidate who has supported an individual mandate to buy health insurance (as Mitt Romney has) and close to three in five (58%) said that support for civil unions for gay couples is a “deal-killer” that would prevent them from supporting a particular candidate, compared to 53% nationwide who supported full marriage rights for gays in a recent Gallup poll. Roughly half of potential Iowa caucusgoers (49% and 51% respectively) would not consider a candidate who voted to raise the nation’s debt limit or who would raise taxes to close the nation’s deficit.
Indeed, based on a 2008 “entrance poll” to the Iowa GOP caucus (the caucus equivalent of a primary’s exit poll), 45% of caucus goers called themselves “very conservative” and three out of five were born-again or evangelical Christians.
In 2012 the Republican presidential nomination calendar starts off with Iowa, followed by New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. Florida is jockeying for a top position as well. As Chart 1 indicates, Iowa’s GOP electorate is the most conservative of those five states.
Chart 1. Makeup of GOP electorate in 2008 presidential primaries and caucuses
Note: * Indicates contest was a caucus, not primary; polls conducted were entrance polls, not exit polls.
Source: CNN.com 2008 Election Center
Iowa and South Carolina are dominated by evangelical Christian voters who could be more supportive of a religious conservative like Bachmann. New Hampshire and Florida, on the other hand, are more favorable for a moderate candidate such as Romney. (Nevada’s caucusgoers, a quarter of whom were Mormon, went for Romney by a wide margin in 2008.) Remember that ex-Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, an evangelical favorite, won Iowa in 2008, but that proved to be the peak of his campaign.
When considering the makeup of the early states, the map looks reasonably well-suited for Romney, so long as he wins New Hampshire, where polling indicates he is a huge favorite at this early stage. He likely will be favored to do well again in Nevada, and although evangelical-rich South Carolina will be a challenge for Romney, he could make up for a setback there in friendlier Florida.
A Bachmann victory in Iowa could eliminate at least one of Romney’s rivals, potentially even Pawlenty. Romney then could confront Bachmann on friendlier territory in New Hampshire, where her religious conservatism would not play quite as well. That would put Romney in the position of John McCain in 2008, as the ideologically questionable front-runner fending off a challenger more beloved by the base (Bachmann as 2012’s Huckabee). Romney is betting that the GOP establishment will get behind him this time, as it did for McCain four years ago.
Perhaps Romney, who is not participating in the Ames, IA straw poll in August, will mimic McCain’s path in another way: effectively skipping Iowa and letting Bachmann do his work there for him.
Will this strategy work? Can Romney truly count on rescue by a party establishment nervous about offending the Tea Party? Will GOP voters even listen to party and elected leaders after all those grassroots victories in 2010? These and so many more questions will keep us occupied for months to come.