10.08.11

Can Bachmann Survive Until Iowa?

The presidential hopeful built a strategy of using the Hawkeye State as a slingshot toward the presidency, but it’s far from certain that she’ll last that long. Lois Romano reports.

Michele Bachmann’s top advisers are fleeing, her crowds are thinning, her poll numbers are dropping and her money is tight. What’s more, the off-the-cuff style that catapulted the Minnesota Republican to the front of the 2012 GOP presidential race has backfired recently.

The performance has left some political veterans both inside and outside her campaign to wonder whether the Tea Party favorite with the telegenic smile and the quick one-liners will hang in there until January’s Iowa caucuses—which she has made the linchpin of her all-or-nothing Iowa strategy.

“She has likely seen her best days in this race,” said Steve Schmidt, the GOP political strategist who ran John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign. “There is not a scenario at this point whereby she can get nomination of the party. But she is among a group of candidates that can play impactful roles.”

Bachmann’s entire strategy has focused on a single play: win the Iowa caucuses—and then hope the momentum will carry her further. But the entry of another Tea Party darling, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, has exposed the chinks in Bachmann’s armor, especially in the fund-raising department where past and current aides tell The Daily Beast she lacked the will to dial for dollars.

One person directly familiar with the campaign, who would discuss internal campaign deliberations only on condition of anonymity, said it “came as a shock” to former campaign manager Ed Rollins and his deputy, David Polyansky, that Bachmann didn’t see it as her responsibility to personally pick up the phone and solicit contributions from big donors. Rollins said recently that Bachmann lacks the “resources to go beyond … Iowa at this point in time.”

The Minnesota congresswoman has historically raised money through direct mail and online contributions—an impressive $13 million for her last congressional campaign—but those avenues will not support a costly presidential race.

Candidates today must woo “bundlers”—wealthy and connected partisan fundraisers—to raise large dollar amounts. “People want to be asked for money and asked to be supporters, and they want to be asked more than once,” the adviser explained. “No candidate likes to make those calls—but that’s the nature of the business and she wouldn’t.”

Rollins and Polyansky, who left the campaign last month, couldn’t see a way to generate money without her direct involvement. Furthermore, the men were frustrated that although Bachmann said she agreed with the Iowa strategy, she used precious resources to travel to other—hopeless—states. For example, after next week’s debate in New Hampshire, she has planned a two-day bus swing through the state—which she has no chance of winning. “It sends a bad message to Iowa that you’re not focused on them,” one adviser says.

Officially, Bachmann’s campaign declined to address the fund-raising concerns, saying only that it has “the necessary resources to continue executing our strategy.”

Bachmann was a fast rising phenomenon when she first announced in June. Her second-quarter fundraising report showed her bringing in a respectable $5 million, making her competitive. Her high point came in August when she won the Ames Iowa straw poll—spending north of $1 million to do so, according to one campaign source. But since then, her trajectory has spiraled downward.

Bachmann hasn’t released her third-quarter fundraising figures yet, but there are indications they won’t be strong. Three aides in Iowa have been taken off the campaign payroll and put back on her congressional staff. High-powered pollster and strategist Ed Goeas is leaving the campaign. Meanwhile, for all his recent setbacks, Texas Gov. Rick Perry raised $17 million since his August announcement.

“She has likely seen her best days in this race. There is not a scenario at this point whereby she can get nomination of the party.”

Bachmann’s woes began the very day of the Ames Straw poll, when Perry’s entered the race and began sucking away conservative support. She never got the momentum back, even after winning the poll or from fellow Minnesotan Tim Pawlenty’s withdrawal from the race.

She has struggled since to be heard in the past few months, and her national poll numbers have dropped, along with her standing in Iowa. The most recent Iowa poll was released at the end of August and had her trailing Perry by 6 points—but experts caution that so much has changed that those numbers likely do not reflect the current state of play.

Even though Perry’s rise has slowed dramatically due to his mediocre debate performances, Bachmann doesn’t seem to be filling the void. “It seems like [Mitt] Romney has been faring better than her without him even having a presence in Iowa,” said James McCormick, political science professor at Iowa State University, referring Romney's decision not to compete in Iowa.

Of course, nothing is for certain in politics. John Kerry was left for dead in late 2003 with the rapid rise of Howard Dean, only to come back and trounce Dean in Iowa—and go on to win the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004. Campaign veterans say Bachmann’s future ine the race will likely depend on how comfortable she is with a bare-bones operation. In the end, all she really needs is money for gas to drive around Iowa.

“If she runs a lean and mean operations focused solely on Iowa, she can probably stick around to see if lightning strikes again,” said GOP political analyst Todd Harris.