Michele Bachmann falls from grace
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."
If the plan was to use her early victories as momentum to catapult into the favor of mainstream conservatives, she failed miserably. The magic wore off, and Bachmann never proved she could win over the rest of the country.
"She never addressed the electability factor, which was always the problem," says Schultz. "She never made the case that she's electable."
There's nothing like a natural disaster to make a candidate look presidential. In late August, shortly after the first signs that her early success was wavering, Bachmann opted for the bold strategy of trying to ride the coattails of Hurricane Irene, which had hit the East Coast the prior week.
"I don't know how much God has to do to get the attention of the politicians," Bachmann told a crowd in Sarasota, Florida, perhaps the worst place in America to make light of a hurricane. "We've had an earthquake, we've had a hurricane. He said, 'Are you going to start listening to me here?' Listen to the American people, because the American people are roaring right now."
The implication was that the Lord was destroying Americans' homes up and down the East Coast because he was pissed about healthcare reform and the stimulus package. Bachmann's campaign later brushed off the quip as a joke, but it was at best ill-timed, coming just six months after the Japanese earthquakes that had left more than 15,000 dead.
"It shows sort of the twisted thinking that goes on in her mind," says Karl Bremer, co-author of the book The Madness of Michele Bachmann. "To me, it's like Pat Robertson blaming Katrina on the gay pride parade that weekend."
Even if the statement was meant in jest, it was a window into Bachmann's fundamentalist Christian views. On the national stage, these radical comments are a turnoff for voters who already think she's too extreme for mainstream politics, says Kathryn Pearson, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota.
"There are the misstatements and the controversial statements, and then there are the controversial misstatements," says Pearson. "Comments that give potential supporters and donors pause, like, 'How would this go over in a general election?'"
With Bachmann foundering, her campaign manager, Ed Rollins, decided it was time to cut ties. A former Reagan advisor, Rollins was Bachmann's claim to legitimacy with the insider Washington crowd, so losing him signaled serious turmoil within the campaign.
"It showed that there was something intrinsically wrong within the campaign itself," says Lynda Waddington, former editor of the Iowa Independent. "That's not a death knell, but it seems like the Bachmann campaign has had so many problems, they've had this critical mass of misfortune."
This wasn't a new problem for Bachmann. Over the course of her career as a state representative and congresswoman, she's been notorious for losing key staff members.
"There's a long history of Bachmann going through staff at breakneck speed," says David Dayen, blogger for political website Fire Dog Lake.
Aside from Rollins, Bachmann lost adivsors Andy Parrish and Ed Goeas, Chief of Staff Ron Carey, and several others. Many of them had harsh words for the campaign on their way out the door, but none hurt quite as bad as Rollins's blistering critique.
In an interview with ABC News, Rollins said Bachmann was "out of money and ideas," and already had no chance of winning the Iowa caucus.
"She's still saying the same things she said in the first the debate," pronounced Rollins. "There's no substance. She says, 'I'm going to repeal Obamacare.' But she's been saying that from day one. I told her: 'That's your Tea Party speech; now you have to say what you're going to do next.'"
Because so many people saw Rollins as legitimizing Bachmann, his betrayal affirmed everything political insiders had suspected about Michele.
Says Steve Smith, political science professor at Washington University: "I don't think there is a Republican activist or insider in the country who didn't interpret that as the end of her effective presidential campaign."
Denied Her Light
On September 7, more than 5.4 million people tuned into MSNBC to watch the GOP debate, making it the most-viewed contest of the campaign trail thus far.
For Bachmann, it was the perfect opportunity to climb back into the good graces of voters. Instead, she was reduced to a rubber-necking bystander, watching the Perry vs. Romney fight from her podium.
Few headlines even mentioned Bachmann's name the next day. The ones that did reference her read like obituaries.
"Bachmann's biggest mistake has been her fairly poor debate performances," says Hiram College's Jason Johnson. "Her inability to capitalize on her success with strong debate performances really hurt her. Really, really hurt her overall. And then we've seen this typhoon of frontrunners appear after her over and over and over again."
The sputtering quickly became a vicious cycle. The debates are structured to give the most likely candidates a chance to field the most questions, so the further she fell, the less camera time she was afforded.
"They've gone right to frontrunners Romney and Perry and Gingrich," says Al Eisele, founder and former editor of the Hill. "I think she's been put in a little bit of a disadvantage, a little on the defensive, and been forced to be a little more confrontational."
In a mid-September debate on CNN, moderator Wolf Blitzer questioned Perry about an executive order he'd signed that required 12-year-old girls to get an HPV vaccine called Gardasil.
This was a vulnerable issue for Perry. On its face, using the government to make Texans take a vaccine used to prevent a sexually transmitted disease went against everything the values voters stood for. But Perry also had deep ties to Merck, the drug company that produced the vaccine.
Mike Toomey, Perry's close ally and onetime chief of staff, was a lobbyist for Merck. The company had also donated to Perry's gubernatorial campaign, which made the fact that Perry bypassed the Texas Legislature and unilaterally signed the order look like a political payback. Now, Perry was even admitting he made a mistake, leaving himself wide open for an opponent to take the kill shot.
"I'm the mom of three [daughters]," Bachmann chimed in. "And to have innocent little 12-year-old girls be forced to have a government injection through an executive order is just flat-out wrong. That should never be done."
After a month of losing ground to Perry, it appeared Bachmann had finally found her cudgel. But she quickly wandered into the thicket of pseudo-science.
The next morning, Bachmann appeared on The Today Show with Matt Lauer to talk about the debate. Lauer wanted the congresswoman to elaborate on her comment about the dangers of the HPV vaccine. Bachmann told Lauer the story of a mother who had approached her after the debate.
"She told me that her little daughter took that vaccine—that injection—and she suffered from mental retardation thereafter," claimed Bachmann. "It can have very dangerous side effects."
Bachmann never revealed the mother's name, but we can safely assume she wasn't a member of the medical community. The story contradicted all scientific evidence about the vaccine, causing a row among medical experts nationwide who accused Bachmann of pumping fear and propaganda into the public consciousness for political gain.
Among them was Dr. Steven Miles, a bioethicist at the University of Minnesota who didn't appreciate Bachmann muddying the reputation of a vaccine that could save lives.
"In the case of HPV, we have a wonderful chance to prevent cervical cancer," says Miles. "It's a worthwhile goal. And to trash that for political points is just the height of irresponsible demagoguery, and that's what she did."
Miles started a Facebook page offering a $1,000 bounty for anyone who could verify Bachmann's tale. A colleague upped the ante and threw in another $10,000, and the gamble quickly went viral.
Bachmann eventually conceded she had "no idea" if the mother's story was true, which didn't do much to help her image as a serious candidate. It was the most jaw-dropping gaffe of her campaign.
"And by the way," adds Miles, "I'm not out 1,000 bucks."
On September 16, Bachmann appeared in the most awkward Jay Leno interview in recent memory. For 10 long minutes, Leno asked her about everything from Rick Perry to the debt ceiling, with hardly a single laugh to break the tension, despite some excruciating attempts by Bachmann.
The most painful part of the interview came when Leno asked her about her husband's controversial clinic, Bachmann & Associates. Specifically, Leno wanted to know more about the "pray away the gay" services that Marcus offered, which Leno compared to trying to convert a left-handed person into a righty.
"See, when I heard that, I really thought it was like a mid-life crisis line," Bachmann replied, trying to deflect the question. "Pray away the gray, that's what I thought it was."
"Oh," said Leno, seemingly unsure if Bachmann was making a joke. "Well, you know what I'm saying."
Aside from being bad television, the interview posed a new problem for Bachmann. On Leno, she was failing in front of a mainstream audience that hadn't even thought about the 2012 election yet.
"Public perception is really an important thing, and has always been an important thing in politics—all the way back to Machiavelli," says Donald Downs, professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "When you get a certain label on you, it's hard to get back."
And it wasn't just Leno—Bachmann was being spoofed across pop culture. Stephen Colbert lambasted her on his show, accusing her of buying the Ames Straw Poll, while Kristen Wiig's impersonation of Bachmann was a regular character on Saturday Night Live.
All the attention seemed to reinforce the same general impression that Bachmann is a goofball, says Hamline's David Schultz.
"She is cemented through pop culture as somebody who is not on top of the details, not the strongest candidate," says Schultz. "And once it's etched in pop culture, I think, you're dead. I think it's impossible to reverse that."
In late October, news broke that Bachmann's New Hampshire staff had collectively resigned. Ever the optimist, Bachmann simply denied anyone had quit.
"That is a shocking story to me," Bachmann told Iowa Radio. "I don't know where that came from. We have called staff in New Hampshire to find out where that came from and the staff have said that isn't true, so I don't know if this is just a bad story that's being fed by a different candidate or campaign. I have no idea where this came from, but we've made calls and it's certainly not true."
But the head-in-the-sand strategy failed to account for the departing staff sending out a press release about it. The release included a letter detailing the drama that had led to the team quitting en masse. When the money dried up, five full-time campaign staffers were asked to go off payroll.
But that wasn't why they bolted, according to the letter: Bachmann's national team had simply stopped returning their phone calls. Confronted with such dysfunction, the staffers had lost all faith in Bachmann's chances of winning.
"The manner in which some in the national team conducted themselves towards Team NH was rude, unprofessional, dishonest, and at times cruel," read the letter. "But more concerning was how abrasive, discourteous, and dismissive some within the national team were towards many New Hampshire citizens. These are our neighbors and our friends, and some within the national team treated them more as a nuisance than as potential supporters."
The exodus spoke to a larger problem for Bachmann in New Hampshire, says Dante Scala, University of New Hampshire political science professor. While Bachmann had attempted to court New Hampshire in the early days of her campaign, she hadn't returned, and voters took it personally.
"When they don't show, activists rightly think that the candidate's not interested," says Scala. "The candidate pays lip service to New Hampshire, and that just doesn't play well here."
On January 3, Bachmann faces the next milestone in the GOP race: the Iowa caucus. Within the month, the campaign trail moves to primaries in New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Florida.
This time, instead of appearing to be a top-tier candidate, she is trailing distantly from her opponents. As if her campaign hadn't already endured enough turmoil, her Iowa campaign co-chairman, Keith Sorenson, announced he was defecting to Ron Paul's campaign less than a week before the caucus.
To keep afloat, she's praying for a miracle. If she doesn't get one, her cash-strapped campaign will likely be forced to fold up the tent, says Steve Smith of Washington University.
"Obviously, she has to do very well in Iowa," says Smith. "That probably means doing first or second. And I think there's very little chance she could do that."
But if Newt Gingrich has taught us anything, it's that this GOP race is unpredictable. Though Bachmann's chances of actually winning the presidency seem slimmer by the day, it's too early to count her out entirely, says Al Eisele, formerly of the Hill.
"We're still about 11 months short of the election," says Eisele. "A lot of things can happen—and will."
But for Bachmann, coming back would be a biblical feat. The story of the two and a half months following Ames is a testament to the volatility of the 2012 Republican race, and a cautionary tale of how quickly a candidate can be shunned.
"Her fall was precipitous," says Downs. "It was strong and forceful. It almost seemed to be overnight."
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