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Bachmann: A Very Serious Contender

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Like Paul, I think Bachmann is not being taken seriously enough, and I particularly reject this kind of analysis, which you’ll presumably hear a lot if you listen to Sunday talk shows:

The Republican nominee is somebody who did ok in the primaries last time, and/or a former VP candidate. You can only beat this system if your dad was president. The Republicans don’t nominate insurgents. They didn’t nominate Ron Paul last time, they nominated the boring guy who came in second in the previous election cycle. They aren’t going to nominate the crazy firebrand this time, either. They’ll nominate the boring guy who came in second last time.

This style of argument sounds good but pretty clearly doesn’t hold up:

  • The “Republican Party” isn’t a static entity, which makes what it did in 1980 and 1996 of very little relevance.  Something like the O’Donnell primary win, in which the GOP base in a deep-blue state decided to throw away a sure Senate seat to punish some very mild heterodoxies on the part of the frontrunner, would be unimaginable 20 years ago too.  So what?  If you applied this kind of analysis to college football you’d have Notre Dame and Michigan as the co-favorites heading into the 2011 season.
  • The sample sizes are too small, and even so the “second place finisher” expectation has a rather important recent exception (and, of course, the second-place finisher in the 2008 primary won’t win this time.)   Also, many of the “elite” choices were also acceptable to the party base, making the comparison with Romney meaningless.
  • Comparing Bachmann to Ron Paul is the most telling error.  Isolationist libertarianism is a tiny constituency.   By contrast, Bachmann is a mainstream Republican circa 2011.  You may not want to hear that, but it’s true.
  • Bachmann may not be the first choice of many party elites, but it’s not clear that they will be steadfastly opposed, either.   Huckabee couldn’t do anything with an Iowa win because the business wing of the party was strongly opposed to him, leaving him unable to raise enough funds.   It’s far from obvious to me that this will happen to Bachmann, who also has to be considered an overwhelming favorite in Iowa right now.
  • If you can site another frontrunner whose most famous policy accomplishment involves legislation that most of the party now considers a fundamental threat to the country, I’d love to hear it.    The problem with these generalizations is that every race is in fact different.   It’s true that McCain was the runner-up in 2000 and won in 2008.   It’s also true that McCain lost to the more orthodox conservative, while Romney finished third in a race that didn’t even have a serious orthodox conservative.   It’s still not clear how Romney has become more appealing to the Republican base after intervening events have turned his central policy achievement politically toxic within his party.    He could still win by default, but Romney is obviously an incredibly vulnerable frontrunner, not remotely comparable to Reagan or either Bush.

Another way of looking at it is Chait’s — Bachmann is probably in a stronger position than Obama was at a similar point in the cycle, and Clinton was in a far stronger position than Romney (even granting that the latter won’t hire Mark Penn.) Lots of things could happen to stop Bachmann — most obviously, as Chait says, a Perry entry — but she’s a very, very serious candidate. At this point, I would bet on her to win a heads-up competition with Romney, and as of now that’s the most likely scenario.

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