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.
The Roving Eye of the Media. Bachmann is one of the most-covered, most-quoted Republican members of Congress. This phenomenon began in October 2008, when she appeared on MSNBC's Hardball and mused about Democrats being investigated for anti-American thinking. It took on weight in 2009, during the rise of the Tea Party, as Bachmann rose from back-bench obscurity by one-upping her leadership on criticisms of President Obama. No one had to prod Bachmann to accuse Obama of engineering the "final leap to socialism," or saying the Serve America Act was effectively creating "re-education camps." According to Lexis-Nexis, since that first Hardball= appearance, Bachmann has been discussed on 127 episodes of the show.
Bachmann's arrival as a possible 2012 candidate sucks up some undetermined amount of media attention that would have otherwise gone to help introduce Pawlenty or another candidate. We don't know who that helps. The most-covered candidate of the 2010 cycle, according to Pew, was Christine O'Donnell, the quotable but hopeless U.S. Senate candidate in Delaware. That cut both ways for Republicans—it kept the spotlight away from some other flawed candidates, but it directed grass-roots money and energy into a lost cause when a lot of other conservatives could have used it.
The Tancredo Effect. In every presidential cycle there's a politician with a relatively small base—Dennis Kucinich, Tom Tancredo—who gets into the race not to win but to yank people closer to him on his pet issue. Bachmann is more credible than most candidates who try this. She raised $13.5 million for her gimme re-election in 2010. That's more than Mike Huckabee raised for his presidential candidacy from the day he entered to the day he won the Iowa caucuses in 2008.
For now, though, Republican strategists view Bachmann as a Tancredo-type candidate who can force her issues into the debate. Strategists I talked to on Thursday basically agreed that Bachmann would drive the field to the right, because she'd done it before, criticizing Republicans in 2010 for not immediately signing up for the repeal of the Affordable Care Act and casting a lonely vote against one of the short-term budget bills this year because it didn't defund "ObamaCare."
Oh, yes: Congress. After Bachmann bailed on a leadership contest in January, my colleague Noreen Malone wrote that Republicans had missed a chance to contain her. If she runs, Bachmann will be the only member of the House—the seat of Republican power right now—running the Lincoln Day and straw poll circuit. Her statements on the stump will be as prominent as anything Majority Leader Eric Cantor or Speaker John Boehner say. Having seen them wince when reporters asked them to respond to Bachmann's alternative State of the Union speech, or her claim of a "slush fund" in the Affordable Care Act, I can guess how excited her presidential race must make them. "Mr. Speaker, a member of your caucus, who is running for president, said in South Carolina today that your budget does not go far enough to scale back Social Security spending. What's your response to that?"
Palin Methadone. When Dana Milbank fulfilled a pledge to spend a whole month ignoring Sarah Palin in his columns, he joked that Bachmann was his "methadone." There is a Palin-shaped hole in the 2012 campaign, and the campaigns of people like Rick Santorum and Tim Pawlenty get a lot easier if Palin doesn't run. But if Bachmann runs, a lot of Palin's voters may gravitate to her. I haven't been to every Tea Party rally, so I could have missed one, but I've seen far more handmade Bachmann signs than I have Draft Santorum foam hands.
Bachmann and Palin are lumped together for an obvious reason—they're high-powered Republican women. But as that Luntz focus group showed, Bachmann is taken more seriously than Palin in some circles. While Palin is a pundit who communicates through social networks and Fox News, Bachmann has a vote in Congress and daily vulnerability to press ambushes. There are millions of Republican women who, in the age of Palin, like the idea of another female candidate. If Palin does pass on the 2012 race, what happens if she endorses Bachmann? This has been a sleepy, late-starting campaign so far. Today we may have seen its first serious dark-horse candidate.