Michele Bachmann's political fortunes are visibly on the rise. Mostly due to a well-received debate performance and a single good poll in Iowa, Bachmann is now the newest shining star to emerge on the stage of the Republican presidential nomination contest. Whether she later proves to be a flavor-of-the-week or whether she actually has staying power is still an open question, at this point. But what appears increasingly obvious is that Bachmann's rise is coming at the expense of another Republican woman's draw on the Republican primary electorate: Sarah Palin.
Michele Bachmann's prominence in the chattering classes right now cannot be denied. Measured by television appearances and news stories alone, Bachmann is now leading the pack. Measured by actual polling, Bachmann can now claim to be the number one "I'm not Romney" candidate, at best. National polling on Republican candidates has been sparse and somewhat inconsistent, but the poll that is making all the news this weekend was just released by an Iowa newspaper, and it showed Romney at 23 percent with Bachmann close behind in a "statistical tie" at 22 percent. Herman Cain (the first Republican candidate to get a "debate bounce" this year) scored 10 percent, and all the other candidates didn't even break into double-digit numbers. Iowa, as hardly needs pointing out, is the first-in-the-nation caucus state, and therefore carries more weight than most other places right now. But the interesting thing, to me at least, was that the Iowa poll only listed announced candidates -- meaning Sarah Palin's name wasn't even a choice. The big unanswered question right now is how the two would fare if they both were offered as side-by-side selections in such a poll.
The problem for Palin is that both she and Bachmann are favorites of an almost-identical slice of the Republican electorate. Which creates somewhat of a zero-sum game between the two: as one gains support, the other is bound to lose support. Of course, at this early point, it's not as cut-and-dried as that may sound, but it's hard to ignore that both Republican ladies' appeal targets the same basic clusters of primary voters. The Tea Party movement is a big part of this, but both women also draw from voter groups such as Republican women, and what could be called the "Just folks" demographic (what used to be called the "Have a beer with" faction -- in short, those people who vote for candidates who seem to be "most like them").
Bachmann and Palin are holding duelling events this week in Iowa. Bachmann announced her presidency today in the small Iowa town where she was born, and tomorrow Palin will be attending a premiere of the hagiographic movie about her life (so far) in a different Iowa town. Because both events were announced so quickly, it is impossible to tell who was stepping on whose toes, exactly, by this scheduling "coincidence." Palin already had successfully overshadowed Mitt Romney's official presidential-run announcement earlier, but this time around it remains to be seen who will garner more press attention. If the media pays more attention to Bachmann than Palin, this will be yet another indication that the window is closing fast for Sarah Palin to make up her mind whether she's making a serious bid for the Republican nomination, or just exercising her political gadfly status in promotion of her own brand.
The "Will she or won't she?" Palin question has kept the mainstream media all a-twitter (and all a-Twitter, we might add) for months now. Palin will, quite obviously, be running her own type of campaign if she does decide to throw her hat in the ring. She's going to do it "her way," in other words, instead of following the tried-and-true path that the campaign consultants have decreed for serious candidates in the modern political era. So far, she's been able to get away with merely teasing the media in this fashion, due to her stratospheric name recognition among the electorate. But when there's an actual candidate in the race who fills in the same demographic niche, it will be interesting to see if the media begins losing interest in the game Palin has (so far) been quite successfully playing.
Bachmann, like Palin, has some serious flaws as a candidate. But while some of these flaws are almost identical (the propensity to say outrageous things in media interviews, for instance); between the two, Bachmann seems to have less serious flaws as a potential candidate -- at least, on paper. The most prominent of the differences between the two is probably that Bachmann never quit a public office. She not only has stayed in Congress, but she's anointed herself leader of the Tea Party Caucus in the House. In her recent television appearances (both in the debate and in Sunday-morning interviews), Bachmann is trying mightily to appear as "presidential" as is humanly possible. Palin, so far, shows no signs of attempting the same transition in the public eye. Bachmann even generated sympathy yesterday when a Fox News interviewer (of all people) asked her point-blank: "Are you a flake?" The backlash among Bachmann supporters soon led to Chris Wallace publicly apologizing for even asking such an impertinent question -- an apology which Bachmann refused to graciously accept.
When actually answering Wallace's question, Bachmann responded with an obviously-rehearsed answer (she gave a nearly-identical answer to a slightly-different question on another network's show the same morning). In doing so, Bachmann took pains to point out that she not only was a lawyer, had a doctorate, and had done post-doctorate work at the prestigious college William and Mary; but that she also still held her job in the United States Congress -- all terrain where Bachmann's credentials shine in direct comparison to Palin's. Bachmann was too smart to draw such an obvious conclusion herself, I should point out (in all fairness). But it's an impossible conclusion to avoid, for anyone seriously comparing the two.
There are some flaws the two women share, however, which was what led to the "Are you a flake?" question in the first place. The media has only scratched the surface of Bachmannisms uttered in the past few years, most especially her skating close to the edge of outright paranoia when it comes to all things Obama. This past weekend, the clip the media focused on was from a previous Chris Matthews interview where Bachmann asserted that President Obama had "anti-American" tendencies. Yesterday, she made a weak attempt to parse this (without much noticeable success) by stating that she wasn't questioning the president's "patriotism." How questioning a person's patriotism differs from calling them anti-American was not explained. But there are plenty of other video clips out there waiting for Bachmann to face in such interviews in the future -- and some are even worse. If Bachmann truly is on the rise, look for these to become issues in the media very shortly.
All this media attention lavished on Bachmann must be chafing Sarah Palin right about now, though. Bachmann has already been labeled "Sarah Palin with a brain," which can't be an easy thing for the Palin camp to hear. If this phrase gains wider acceptance, it will only serve to hasten the rise of Bachmann while Palin fades into the background. Of course, Palin could be playing a craftier game than people expect right now. Palin may be staying on the sidelines right now in anticipation of her "protégé" stumbling in a big way at some future point. The glare of media attention which comes with a national presidential campaign is relentless, and it is entirely possible that Bachmann will face her own "Katie Couric moment" in the near future, blowing some media interview in spectacular style. If Palin chose this precise moment to announce her candidacy, the poll numbers could shift overnight back in her direction.
The problem with this scheme is that Bachmann isn't the only choice Republican Tea Party primary voters are going to have. There are multiple candidates vying for the "Tea Party candidate" crown, and any one of them could just as easily benefit from a Bachmann rough patch. Palin -- at this point -- still outshines them all when it comes down to name recognition. But that could change as the nomination race proceeds. The hunger of the Republican primary electorate for a "not-Romney" candidate is a powerful thing this year, and they may settle on someone else so solidly that Palin won't be able to shake them loose with a late entry into the race.
In addition, Bachmann will face some serious headwinds even if she doesn't noticeably stumble on the campaign (and interview) trail. The first is historic: only one sitting House member (James Garfield) has ever been elected president. It's a tough row to hoe, in other words, to make the jump from the lower house of Congress to the White House. The second is the Republican Party establishment. The GOP is not exactly fond (to put it mildly) of renegade "outsider" candidates, and can be expected to rally around anyone -- even a weak candidate -- when faced with upstart victories early in the primary season. If Michele Bachmann (or, for that matter, Sarah Palin) won Iowa and perhaps South Carolina, then the Republican establishment would quite likely close ranks to wholeheartedly support Mitt Romney. This assumes Romney is the only viable "establishment" candidate at such a point, I should mention, which at this juncture looks like a safe bet since neither of the other acceptable establishment candidates (Huntsman and Pawlenty) has any tangible support from the voters at the moment. The weight (and money) of the Republican Party could serve to crush the upstart candidate if this plays out -- as it has demonstrably done in the past.
Looking more to the immediate future, however, Sarah Palin's realistic opportunity to jump in the Republican nomination race and still have a viable chance of winning seems to be fading as Michele Bachmann's star rises in the Republican firmament. Palin could still turn this around, to be sure, but the window for her to do so seems to be closing faster and faster. She may not have the luxury (as she seems to be assuming now) of taking a leisurely few months to tour America by bus, before surprising everyone with her announcement. In that time, Bachmann could cement her support among the key group Palin is counting on to rally behind her late in the game. If Bachmann can present herself as a more serious candidate than Palin to the voters -- and one who has a better chance of actually winning -- then Palin's chances may be completely eclipsed by Bachmann's candidacy.
To be sure of any of this, more polling is necessary. When it becomes possible to accurately measure recent polls which include Palin as a candidate with polls that don't have her name in the list, then it will be possible to gauge Bachmann's support with and without Palin in the race. At the present time, it is impossible to do so, mostly because any available comparison polling is outdated (polling before Bachmann's recent debate performance should now be seen as worthless, for instance). This is a reminder that we're still in the early days of the campaign.
For now, the best measure of popularity may be in the mainstream media both Bachmann and Palin abhor. If the media continues its fascination with Bachmann, and if (a very big "if," mind you) the media also ends its almost-slavish following of everything Palin does and says; then that sound you are going to hear will be the window of opportunity of Palin's chances creaking shut. One notable subtlety in this metric is that Bachmann (so far, at least) has been open to interviews with anyone who will have her. Even if Sarah Palin officially jumped in the presidential race tomorrow, it's hard to picture her giving any of what she so charmingly calls the "lamestream media" the time of day, much less an interview on Sunday morning. Palin's strategy will likely be the new Republican "ignore any media who don't support you" way of campaigning. If Bachmann is seen as more willing than Palin to tackle tough questions, and more able to hold her own no matter who interviews her, this is only going to add to the voters' impression of a big difference in substance between the two.
There are many ways in which all of this could play out. Palin may not even run, for instance. But it's hard not to notice that as Bachmann's visibility (and possible viability, as a candidate) has risen just in the past week or so, Palin's visibility seems to be fading at the same time. Whether this signifies a real shift, or whether it's just a momentary trendlet remains to be seen. But if I were Sarah Palin, I would certainly be paying attention right about now to Michele Bachmann.
-- Chris Weigant
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant