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What The Bachmann Skeptics Get Wrong

I think Michelle Bachmann has a real shot to win the Republican nomination, but many commentators continue to view her as a fringe candidate bound to implode. Here' Will Wilkinson:

It will not surprise me if Ms Bachmann is able to parlay her tea-party popularity and Iowa roots into a victory in Iowa's first-in-the-nation caucuses. But conservative voters aren't as blinkered as Mr Chait implies. As the campaign wears on, and Republican voters grow more familiar with the candidates, the advantages of experience and electability will become ever more salient.

And here's former Republican campaign consultant Mike Murphy:

the billion-volt electron microscopes of the national media will soon be trained on Bachmann now that she’s the official Iowa front runner. I’ll bet dollars to Minnesota lutefisk that despite her new squad of professional handlers, we are in for more of Bachmann’s factual fumbles. Her latest mix-up, confusing the birthplace of beloved American icon John Wayne with that of serial killer John Wayne Gacy, hints that Michele’s next moves on the national stage may receive more than a few boos and flying vegetables from the voting public. While media criticism of her factually erroneous rhetoric will only help her with her populist base, what is gold for America’s comedians is a 500-ton lead sinker for any candidate trying to build enough party-wide support to actually win the Republican nomination. ...

Make no mistake: faced with the terrifying prospect of nominating Bachmann and handing the presidency to Obama, the Republican establishment would rally hard and fast behind Romney. And while a unified Republican establishment in full combat mode cannot compete with the Tea Party when it comes to making cardboard Uncle Sam hats, GOP Inc. can easily crush a candidate like Bachmann over the full series of primaries.

Let me start by reiterating something I've said before, which is that predicting future election outcomes is inherently difficult, and punditry about this (by me or anybody) should inherently be taken with a grain of salt. That said, I think the Bachmann skeptics are making some analytic errors here:

1. They assume that Bachmann will say a bunch of obviously crazy/ignorant things and expose herself as unpresidential. It could well happen. But it could also not. So far, Bachmann is disciplined. And, whatever lack of gravitas Wilkinson detects in person, I don't think it comes across on television.

The interesting thing about her is that insiders who have worked with hr seem convinced she's our of her gourd, but she manages to contain the crazy in public. The John Wayne gaffe cited by Murphy is a nothing-burger, smaller than gaffes committed by other candidates routinely. (Imagine if Bachmann had discussed Iraq policy at length while referring constantly to the country as "Iran" and its people as "Iranians.") Now, if Bachmann does make a lot of Palin gaffes, she'll be discredited. On the other hand, if the press pillories her for pseudo-gaffes in a way that seems sexist or condescending, and it doesn't have the goods on her, Bachmann could benefit from what clearly appears to be a double standard. I continue to suspect that the Bachmann skeptics think she'll implode largely because she reminds them of Palin, when in fact she has a professional staff and is far more in control than Palin. The continued assumption that she will necessarily humiliate herself will have the added benefit of making it easy for her to surpass expectations.

2. While Republican voters care about electability, I'm not convinced they have an accurate sense of which candidates are more electable. Maybe they'll decide the more electable candidate is the one who can challenge the horror that is Obamacare and hang it around Obama's neck, and isn't compromised by having implemented the same plan at the state level. In 2000, polls showed that Republicans considered George W. Bush more electable than John McCain even though McCain was almost certainly a more potent general election prospect.

3. I suspect Murphy's view of the power the the Republican establishment is colored by his experience working for McCain in 2000, when the party establishment united and crushed the McCain insurgency. But of course it's different in important ways. McCain was challenging the party power structure from the left, violating the party's central tenet by attacking Bush's proposed tax cut as unfair and unaffordable. Thus Bush benefited from a concerted effort by Republicans in Congress and K Street along with all manner of right-wing pressure groups, like the Christian Coalition, Rush Limbaugh and so on. This time around, a great many of those groups are working to defeat Mitt Romney.

I don't doubt that a substantial and powerful part of the GOP coalition would unite around Romney against Bachmann for electability reasons. But Bachmann will have plenty of organizational and media support of her own in such a scenario. She has extensive Tea Party backing, and would enjoy support from the aforementioned anti-Romney crusade. Limbaugh and many other conservative commentators love her. She may lose, but she won't be like McCain, standing alone against the overwhelming force of the conservative movement and the party apparatus.