Michele Bachmann for president? Among Republicans, she's more popular than you think.
Pollster and political guru Frank Luntz flew to Iowa last month to conduct a survey for Fox News. Twenty-six Republicans, likely to vote in the next caucuses, were shown video clips of 11 politicians who might run for president. They twisted dials, scored from 0 to 100, to rate the candidates. One of the clear winners was Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann.
"There's a very strong message that the people want us to hear," said Bachmann-on-video. "No.1, it is get rid of the big spending, which leads to big deficits, which kills jobs. And then No. 2, we don't want the federal government to control private industry or own private industry."
The Iowans couldn't twist their dials fast enough.
"She hit 90 at the end," said Sean Hannity. "Those are solid numbers for anybody."
Luntz explained that the voters liked Bachmann's talk about business and constitutional principles. "Sarah Palin came in with significant support," said Luntz. "But after these voters watched Michelle Bachmann, Palin's numbers came way down and Michelle Bachmann's numbers shot up."
The focus group pruned the field. Mitt Romney was dumped early, as was Mitch Daniels ("boring"), as was John Thune (this was before he withdrew from the race). They dumped Palin but kept Bachmann because "they thought that she was more direct and less polarizing," Luntz said. Bachmann was their third choice, right after Mike Huckabee and Newt Gingrich.
The moral of the story: Don't write off Michele Bachmann. Oh, the temptation is there. After CNN broke the news that the third-term representative was taking steps toward a presidential bid, Republican strategist Mike Murphy assured Time magazine readers that she was a kook: "As I tweeted a few weeks ago, Michele Bachmann makes Sarah Palin look like Count Metternich." It took mere hours for Fox News to locate one of her former chiefs of staff—her fifth—and confirm that he backed that other candidate from Minnesota, former Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
But how many votes does Mike Murphy have in Iowa? Early primary and caucus states are the places where the candidates who appeal to activists can catch fire, and where, if they're lucky, they can force the rest of the candidates to move closer to them. This is why Michele Bachmann can dramatically affect Republican politics in 2011 and 2012 if she commits to a run. Let us count the ways.
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at email@example.com, or tweet at him @daveweigel.