JONATHAN CHAIT JUNE 1, 2011
A striking thing about the press coverage of the Republican presidential nomination contest is that it assumes a field that sits far to the left of the Republican electorate. Conventional wisdom-meister Mark Halperin tabs Mitt Romney, who is both ideologically and religiously unacceptable to large segments of the party base, as the runaway front-runner. His second-most likely contender is Jon Huntsman, who is not only completely unacceptable to the conservative base but is perfectly aware of that fact (and is probably setting himself up for 2016).
I've been talking up the chances of Tim Pawlenty winning the nomination, largely by default, as the only candidate acceptable both to party elites and to grassroots activists. But I believe the prospect of a more conservative candidate winning the nomination is very real, and the field for such a candidate is wide open. Herman Cain has attracted some attention, but I don't take him very seriously. Cain's knowledge of policy, especially foreign policy, is so thin that he can't even bluff his way through basic questions. My unconfirmable suspicion is that some Republicans like the idea of supporting Cain as proof that their opposition to Obama isn't racist, but don't actually want to nominate Cain.
The candidate best positioned to win this constituency is Michelle Bachmann, who I've also been touting as a dark horse. She's been honing her pitch before Tea Party rallies for two years, building a national constituency and a fund-raising base. A Sarah Palin candidacy would probably siphon off too much of her base, but Palin doesn't seem to be preparing to run. And if Palin doesn't run, and an outsider like Paul Ryan doesn't run, then you're looking at a field overloaded with candidates catering to the small pragmatic wing and nearly devoid of candidates catering to the Tea Party base.
I've been trying to figure out why the media has given such relatively short shrift to Bachmann. (Halperin upgraded her from a preposterously low 10,00-1 odds to a still ridiculously low 1,000-1.) The answer, I suspect, is that she's being conflated with Palin. Reports about Bachmann compare her with Palin constantly. And of course Palin has cratered. News reporters probably assume that Bachmann -- who also terrifies GOP elites -- would crater as well.
But while Bachmann may be even crazier than Palin on questions of public policy, she seems to manage to hold things together as a candidate. She can answer questions from the news media. She is putting together a professional campaign rather than relying on amateur advisors. She takes care to point out frequently that she is a former tax lawyer, and she does not engage in Palin's visceral anti-intellectualism, giving herself the aura of a plausible president, at least in the minds of Republican voters. Bachmann may well combine Palin's most powerful traits without her crippling organizational failures.
It's worth keeping in mind that the 2010 election cycle featured a long series of conservative upstarts shocking the mainstream media by knocking off establishment-approved candidates in nominating contests. Obviously, the nominating contest is a series of state-level nominating primaries generally dominated by an activist base. Right now, the right wing of the party nominating field is a vacuum. Somebody is going to fill that vacuum.