It seems like only yesterday that Sarah Palin stepped into a pair of red, Naughty Monkey peep-toe pumps and blew up every assumption about the Republican Party and women. With a briefing book in her hands, a baby on her hip, and a party enamored with her, Palin created the impression in 2008 that the GOP was not only willing, but eager, to elect a women to the highest, or at least second-highest, office in the land.
On the high heels of Palin-mania came a slew of fresh Republican faces like governors Nikki Haley in South Carolina and Susanna Martinez in New Mexico, women winning statewide office for the first time and stopping, or at least slowing, the narrative that only Democratic women will rally around another woman to lift her into office.
Palin had stumped for Bachmann in her Minnesota district in 2010, rallying their fellow “mama grizzlies” to Bachmann’s side and declaring it the Year of the Conservative Woman. “2010 is shaping up to be the year that conservative women get together to take back this country and Michele is leading the stampede!” But by 2012, the stampede of conservative women supporting Bachmann for the White House was more like a weekend stroll.
Once near the top of the field after a historic win in the Ames Straw poll, Bachmann was eventually relegated to polls in the single digits, with little hope of regaining the momentum she had earlier in the race. Although she committed a string of embarrassing gaffes, stumbles and staff shake-ups, some Republican women in the Hawkeye state say they think they know what happened to Bachmann’s once vaunted chances of becoming president-- reality.
Jeanne Jennings of Johnston, Iowa, for instance, said Tuesday night that she likes Bachmann very much indeed, but chose to caucus for Rick Santorum instead.
“I was for Michele Bachmann for a long time. I read her book. Wonderful book, wonderful family, wonderful person,” Jennings said. “But then I just started thinking about being presidential and I don’t know that we’re ready for a woman for president. I think what we really need to do is get Rick Santorum for president and Michele Bachmann for vice president.”
Georgiana Cleveland from Boone, Iowa, said the same: “I guess maybe we here are not quite ready for a women president.” (Iowa has also not been ready for a woman governor, senator, or member of Congress.)
Cleveland is a deeply religious woman who went to Paula’s Cafe in West Des Moines on Monday to see Bachmann and said she was impressed “by how she holds her own.”
She said she would be willing to caucus for Bachmann, even if other women she knows are not: “They may not elect her, but I would.’’ .
It’s the same refrain many of Hillary Clinton’s 2008 supporters sang when they saw Clinton as marginalized in a race in which she was more qualified for the job. But while Hillary Clinton was often buoyed by Democratic women’s disproportionate support and surrounded on the campaign trail by the self-described “Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants Suits,” Bachmann seems to have made her journey almost alone. Sarah Palin has not endorsed anybody in the presidential race, including Bachmann, and Nikki Hayley, the first female governor of South Carolina, has thrown her support behind Mitt Romney. When Bachmann travels to South Carolina this week to try to jump-start her campaign among conservatives, Haley will be in New Hampshire stumping for Romney.
But more detrimental to Bachmann than the prominent GOP women who are not endorsing are the everyday Republican women who say they’re not voting for her. In Iowa State University’s latest poll of likely caucus-goers, Bachmann was again polling in the single digits, with slightly fewer women (7.2%) supporting her than men (7.3%). Ron Paul, on the other hand, had a huge gender gap, with far more women (31%) supporting his candidacy than men (22%.)
There’s no question why a liberal woman would not care for Bachmann, or at least her policies. She is aggressively pro-life, promises to abolish “Obamacare,” and has called for the military to draw up war plans to bomb Iran. But why aren’t conservative women supporting one of their own?
Iowa voters-- both men and women-- told the Des Moines Register that they just don’t see Bachmann as up to the job, no matter her gender. Bachmann was considered the least knowledgeable on the issues of any candidate running for president tied with Gingrich in the Register’s latest poll on the question of who would be least likely to bring real change.
But change has come to the Bachmann campaign. After six months of going out of way her in debates to prove that she was just as tough as the men on stage and comparing herself to Ronald Reagan, Bachmann has made a small but important adjustment that could appeal to Republican women. She has now cast herself not just as strong, but as “a strong Iowa woman,” and has added Britain’s former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher into the mix of iconic world leaders to compare herself to. “My goal is to be America’s own Iron Lady,” she said on Monday.
As Bachmann moved through Paula’s Cafe in West Des Moines on Monday to chat up a group of women eating there, she was all smiles, hugs and bumper-sticker girl-power. “We need to elect a strong woman!” she said. “It’s so important.”
As Iowans gathered to caucus Tuesday night, Bachmann gave a final speech near her home town in Blackhawk County. And as she asked voters one more time to get behind her campaign, she spoke with one woman — her mother — by her side.
Patricia Murphy is the Atlanta-based editor of Citizen Jane Politics and a contributor to the Daily Beast. Previously, she covered Congress for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter at @1PatriciaMurphy.