Sunday, June 19, 2011

Has Michele Bachmann Been Underestimated?

One of the few stories that emerged from the June 13th primary debate in New Hampshire was the introduction of Michele Bachmann to the race. The story wasn't merely that Bachmann entered the race, but that she performed surprisingly well during the debate. There are some early indications that Bachmann's poll numbers may have leaped into the second-tier: still far behind Romney, but surprisingly high compared to other candidates.

Among the mainstream media, Bachmann is widely considered both an extremist and a gaffe-prone, unintelligent laughingstock. Among the Republican establishment, she is considered a loose cannon and completely unelectable. Meanwhile, the Tea Party holds Bachmann in high esteem, though some dedicated Sarah Palin fans view her as a threat to Palin's candidacy. The Tea Party scoffs at the opinions of the mainstream media and the Republican establishment. History shows, however, that the opinions of Democrats, Independents, and moderate Republicans do have considerable influence on the early primaries (including Iowa), where "electable" candidates almost always win.

Elephant Watcher's analysis of Bachmann shows that she suffers from low perceived electability. Moreover, she has been rated "low" in rhetorical ability, and Elephant Watcher's latest calculations show her with only a 1% chance of winning the nomination. But given Bachmann's reasonably strong performance in the June 13th debate, has Bachmann been underestimated?

Bachmann's campaign has two main tasks. First, she must unite the Tea Party wing by proving Herman Cain is less serious (i.e. informed, electable) than she, and bringing in Palin fans once they're willing to accept that Palin's not running. Second, Bachmann must expand her coalition beyond the Tea Party by improving her perceived electability. During the debate, she took steps toward both of these goals. Can she continue?

The road ahead is not as smooth as the first debate was. Bachmann greatly benefited from low expectations and easy questions from the debate moderator. She was also unchallenged by her competitors, since attacking other candidates during early debates is uncommon. Her candidacy has also been unchallenged by the mainstream media thus far. Though they've always despised her, they will not begin to dig into her past and begins serious attack until her poll numbers increase and she becomes a threat to win Iowa. In addition, Bachmann has not subjected herself to interviews by liberal journalists. Recall that Sarah Palin was extremely popular and appeared invincible--until she was interviewed. Bachmann may delay these interviews, but all Republican candidates eventually do them.

On that note, there is a possibility that Bachmann may improve her rhetorical skill rating on her Profile. During the debate, she appeared to at least have "moderate" rhetorical skill. However, rhetorical skill encompasses not only the ability to provide answers at a debate, but also "give and take" with a hostile audience, such as an interview with a liberal journalist. If Bachmann can emerge from such interviews relatively unscathed, her rating will increase.

Bachmann may have what it takes to defeat Herman Cain, but it is still early. New candidates get a bit of a honeymoon period. Afterward, voters start looking at their flaws. The next few months will be a critical period: It should become clear whether Cain or Bachmann is more likely to rally the Tea Party. And if Rick Perry enters the race, it will open up a new set of challenges for both of them.