Michele Bachmann falls from grace

From top GOP contender to bottom of the barrel

Michele Bachmann falls from grace
Ken Avidor

Illustrations by Ken Avidor

At first, only a hand appeared waving from the darkened doorway of the campaign bus, and that was enough to earn applause from the anxious fans mixed into the throng of press. Then Michele Bachmann emerged, clad in pearls and a white dress that could have been borrowed from Jackie O's closet. To the tune of "I've Been Everywhere" by Johnny Cash, Bachmann and her husband, Marcus, vivaciously glad-handed the crowd and took their place in front of the congregation.

"Thank you, everyone, for being here," Michele began. "What we saw happen today, this is the very first step for taking the White House in 2012. You have just sent a message that Barack Obama will be a ONE! TERM! PRESIDENT!"

The line had become Bachmann's catch phrase by this day in mid-August, and the crowd chanted it along with her. They had plenty of reason to be excited. Bachmann had just won the Ames Straw Poll, which meant she was now the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination.

Even if the election was still more than a year away, the victory was significant. Ames is the first test in the Republican presidential primary race, and no woman had won it before. Fox News touted the win as fortifying Bachmann's "top-tier status" among fellow GOP candidates. Tim Pawlenty, the other Minnesotan in the race, took the hint and ended his campaign.

"God bless America!" Bachmann declared as she prepared to climb back into the bus. "Now it's on to all 50 states!"

But a funny thing happened on the way to the White House. Bachmann was cast out of the spotlight, relegated to the wallflower section of the race with the likes of Rick Santorum and Jon Huntsman. And if her early rise to the top of the polls was meteoric, her plunge from grace was even more spectacular.

So what the hell happened?

The Anointed One Enters

Immediately after winning the straw poll, Bachmann took a victory lap on the media circuit. Among her first television appearances was Face the Nation with Norah O'Donnell.

After the obligatory congratulations, O'Donnell quickly changed the subject to the day's headlines. It had been less than 24 hours since Bachmann's victory in Ames, but it was already old news. O'Donnell was more interested in talking about Rick Perry.

"How will you compete against him?" O'Donnell pressed. "Almost half of the jobs created in America in the last two years were created in Texas. How do you feel like you have helped create jobs?"

Perry quickly proved to be Kryptonite for the Bachmann campaign. He was already a darling of social conservative voters, who had gravitated to Bachmann by default.

"The worst thing that happened to Michele Bachmann was the entry of Rick Perry," says Cary Covington, professor of political science at the University of Iowa. "When he entered, most of Michele Bachmann's support moved to him."

Aside from sharing the Tea Party mantle, Perry owned an executive record that eclipsed Bachmann's congressional experience. He had taken over as governor of Texas in 2000 after George W. Bush became president, making him the longest sitting governor in the state's history. He hated "Obamacare" as much as Bachmann did, earned an "A+" standing with the NRA, and executed more than 234 death-row inmates. To the right wing, he was practically a saint.

The Perry effect was evident instantly. Within days, a Rasmussen Poll gave Perry a double-digit lead over Bachmann. During the next six weeks, Perry won 17 polls.

"That was the end of her plateau," says Aaron Blake, co-author of the Washington Post's political blog, the Fix. "It was phenomenal how quickly she dropped off, and how quickly he rose, when he got into the race."

Lost in the Holy Land

Listening to Bachmann stump during the early months of her campaign, she sounded more like an Iowa delegate than a Minnesota politician.

"I tell people: Everything I needed to know in life, I learned in Iowa," she told the crowd during one speech, a strange admission from a woman who moved from the state at age 13.

But it was a smart strategy to court Iowa voters. Iowa is known for its social conservative base, and Bachmann's Midwest upbringing put her in prime position to pounce.

The problem was that Bachmann didn't readjust after the straw poll to move beyond the Tea Party and target more moderate Republicans, says Jason Johnson, political science professor at Hiram College in Ohio.

"You're supposed to go out and say, 'The people have spoken, I am electable. I am electable,' and she didn't do that," says Johnson. "She didn't use that to take chunks out of Mitt Romney."

By itself, winning Ames isn't a red carpet to a party nomination. Since the tradition started in 1979, the only two candidates to win the straw poll and advance to the general election have been Bob Dole (who tied for first in the poll) and George W. Bush, leading many to question its practical relevance.

"Iowa is not that critical," says David Schultz, a government expert and political author who teaches at Hamline University. "I think what she was hoping for was sort of the slingshot effect."

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