If you’re not yet taking Michele Bachmann’s candidacy seriously, this may be the week to start. Two polls have arrived show her leading in Iowa, and digging deeper into the numbers—looking at highly motivated caucus-goers, for example—suggests that her lead is even larger than the polls indicate. And then there are her fundraising numbers, which she’ll probably announce this Friday. She won’t beat Mitt Romney, who already announced an $18.5 million take. But she may well announce $7 or $8 million, which would put her well ahead of the rest of the field. It’s all teeing up. Or “tea”-ing up. Depending on which way history’s winds are blowing next spring, Bachmann could very well win the nomination.
First let’s dispense with the mechanics. The non-Romneys have all raised in the range of $4 million or so. That’s awfully small potatoes (remember that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama raised $25 and $30 million, respectively, in the same quarter of 2007). Bachmann has always been strong on money. She was in fact the top fundraiser in the House last year among Republicans, hauling in $13.5 million for what initially looked to be a tough race. As was true of Obama in 2007-08, she gets most of her money (far more than he did, in fact) from small donors, with an average donation of $619.34, suggesting the presence of a large army of people out there who have the money and will to write her one, two, three, or more $500 checks as the nominating process goes on. That will sustain her through the early contests, perhaps even through a loss or two. Assuming she delivers on these apparent quasi-leaks and reports a number in the range of $7 to $8 million, she becomes the clear number two in the field.
Of course it’s early—but it’s not that early. The Iowa caucuses are seven months away. Conventional-wisdom bubbles are already descending on the other candidates that they don’t really have that much time to bust out of. Newt Gingrich is so absurd that he’s even managing to damage his future speaking fee. Tim Pawlenty just doesn’t seem ready; standing next to the others, he comes across like the Beaver trying to hang around with Wally and Eddie. Jon Hunstman looks like a credible general election candidate, but he also seems like a pundit candidate, like this year’s Bruce Babbitt (if you got the Beav joke, you’ll get that one too). But wait, you say: Obama didn’t make his move in Iowa until November 2007, at that huge Jefferson-Jackson event. Suddenly everyone forgot his lousy summer. So these bubbles could burst. But none of the above three seems to have Obama’s dynamism and army of hopeful backers who helped will him into seriousness. It’s Bachmann, loony as she may be, who possesses those qualities.
We always knew it would come down to Romney and One Who Is Not Romney, and the latter is shaping up to be Bachmann. Two questions then arise. First, whom does the calendar favor? Markos Moulitsas famously wrote recently that the calendar favors Bachmann. He actually didn’t make quite as persuasive a case as I’d expected, given his declarative headline (“Why Michele Bachmann will be the GOP nominee”). Too much is up in the air about, for example, whether candidates will campaign in large early states that ignored the RNC-imposed deadline, such as Michigan and Florida.
Putting those aside, the first four states are Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada. If Bachmann gets a split on those four, she heads into Super Tuesday positioned to win a bunch of smaller states. Romney would probably take big states like New York and California. That will help him on the delegate count, but the Bachmann team will undoubtedly argue that those are Obama states anyway—and that the GOP needs a person who’s a vote-getter in red states. And it will be an argument that will make people stop and think.
Which leads us to the section question, which involves considerations of the historical tide. What will be happening in Washington next spring as Republican voters select their nominee? Is there any reason to think the GOP base will be any less enraged about the fact that Barack Obama is the president? Is there any reason to think that a conservative movement that is at this hour unloading more bile on Mitch McConnell than even on Obama will become more pragmatic when deliberating on its presidential nominee? Maybe. But when movements capture parties, strange things happen. The antiwar faction captured the Democratic Party in 1972, giving us the candidacy of George McGovern, and the tea party movement has captured the GOP now.
People say, “Oh, Karl Rove and his sort will stop a Bachmann.” Certainly they’ll try. But what if they fail? I’d sure love for some of Rupert’s henchmen to hack into Rove’s phone calls and emails when Bachmann’s numbers are announced on Friday. Short of that I’ll just have fun watching the Republican civil war unfold.