Michele Bachmann and the politics of the personal

at 11:35 AM ET, 06/30/2011


Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) greets supporters after she launched her campaign for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination in her childhood hometown of Waterloo, Iowa, June 27, 2011. REUTERS/Jeff Haynes
Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann made a startling admission on Wednesday night at an event in South Carolina: she had a previously unreported miscarriage.

“After our second child was born, we became pregnant with a third baby,”said Bachmann. “And it was an unexpected baby, but of course we were delighted to have this child. And the child was coming along, and we ended up losing that child. And it was devastating for both of us, as you can imagine if any of you have lost a child.”

She told the story in the context of her opposition to abortion. But, Bachmann’s decision to reveal something so personal is telling — and provides a window into her unique appeal in the race.

The reality of presidential politics — and all politics for that matter — is that voters tend to make their decisions not on dry policy matters but rather on what we describe, for lack of a better word, as “feel”.

Yes, where a candidate stands on an issue (or issues) matters and set the basic parameters of a voter’s decision. (If you support the legality of abortions, you are unlikely to vote for a candidate who opposes it, for example.)

But, particularly in a primary fight where the candidates largely agree on the major policy matters of the day, the “feel” factor weighs heavily.

That is, which candidate gets it? Which candidate seems to best understand the hopes and anxieties that you have? Which seems like the best person to represent your interests in the White House? Put most simply: which candidate do you like best?

Look back to the 2008 Republican presidential primary fight. On paper, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney looked like the nominee — with solid organizations in every early state and a massive campaign warchest.

But Romney struggled then — as he still does — to connect with voters. He seemed to vacillate between overly stiff and overly solicitous, never finding the right balance that seemed genuine.

Meanwhile, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee was all charisma — virtually exuding average Joe-ness through his every pore. Not only did Huckabee play the bass guitar(!) but he also had struggled for years with his own weight; he was eminently relatable to voters.

Huckabee’s victory over Romney in the Iowa caucuses opened the door for Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) in New Hampshire. And, again, Romney fell short in the Granite State not because of organization or spending but rather because McCain’s personal story — prisoner of war, political maverick — was simply more compelling to voters.

Fast forward to the 2012 race.

Bachmann’s candidacy is heavily premised on her personal story — she is the only woman (and mother) in the race and mentions the fact that she has raised 5 children and 23 foster children at nearly every campaign stop.

It’s what makes her stand out in the field. She is running as a sort-of personal populist — someone who not only feels your pain but has lived it.

Millions of families have had to weather the sorrow of a miscarriage; that Bachmann and her husband are one of them makes her that much more compelling to many voters.

To make clear how different Bachmann’s campaign proposition is than her rivals: Can you imagine Romney or former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty making a similarly revealing personal admission to a crowd at a campaign event? It’s hard to see.

All of the above is not to suggest that Bachmann’s decision to talk about her miscarriage was in any way a political or strategic gambit.

But it does highlight what Bachmann brings to the table and how she has already begun to distinguish herself from the rest of the field.

Read more on PostPolitics.com

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Bachmann: Voters like me because ‘they feel like they can trust me’

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