JONATHAN CHAIT APRIL 5, 2011
Michelle Bachmann is starting to make a move in the GOP primary. She's drawing strong reviews for her public appearances. She out-raised Mitt Romney in the first quarter. She's hired Mike Huckabee's well-regarded political director. And yet most reporters still believe she has no chance to win the nomination. The most bullish assessment I've seen, by Ed Kilgore, concedes, "it’s hard to imagine someone as radical as her actually winning the nomination." But I think Bachmann is a legitimate dark-horse possibility to win the nomination.
Now, my model of how the nomination works presumes the nominee will probably be someone who's acceptable to both the activist base and the party elites. That argument took me, by process of elimination, to Tim Pawlenty, the only candidate who 1) the base won't disqualify, 2) the elites won't disqualify, and 3) actually seems to want to run. But, as Josh Marshall points out, if Bachmann wins in Iowa, she could knock Pawlenty out of the race.
Then what happens? Well, you'd see the GOP establishment scrambling to unify behind a non-insane alternative. But as I've argued ad nauseum, I don't think that will be Mitt Romney. Or, if it is Romney, I think Bachmann could probably beat him. She'd carve him to pieces over health care, not to mention general inauthenticity issues. Haley Barbour? Perhaps. I could also very well envision some kind of effort to draft a young right-wing heartthrob like Paul Ryan or Marco Rubio into the race.
The best parallel I think consider is Howard Dean. No, Dean is not anywhere near as crazy as Bachmann. That's not the point. Both tap deeply into a well of activist anger against a sitting president that is not being fully satisfied by other candidates. Both inspire passionate activist volunteers, and make their rivals look phony by comparison. And both inspire terror among the party leadership -- Democrats in 2003 considered Dean just as unelectable as Republicans now consider Bachmann.
Of course, Dean imploded right before the Iowa caucus. But he could have won, and he was on the verge of sweeping right through the primaries, as he picked up steam through 2003 and the opposition fractured. Republican elites will mount a determined opposition to Bachmann. While the effort may be successful -- the way GOP leaders rallied around Bob Dole to fend off Pat Buchanan in 1996 -- it may be a failure, like the effort to draft Wes Clark.
I think Bachmann has a genuine outside shot to win the nomination.