On Aug. 13, 2011, Michele Bachmann was on top of the world — the winner of the Ames Straw Poll and presumptive frontrunner in the Iowa caucuses. On Wednesday, Bachmann left the presidential race after placing sixth in those same caucuses.
“At the end of the day, voters liked her but didn’t see her as the party nominee or their president,” said Ed Rollins, Bachmann’s one-time campaign manager. “She didn’t make the sale.”
Bachmann loyalists largely resisted engaging in any sort of discussion over what might have been — and why it wasn’t. “We are very proud of the campaign Michele ran,” said spokeswoman Alice Stewart. “Now is not the time to play armchair quarterback.”
But, sifting through the ruins provides a telling window into how a campaign with much promise went so wrong. And, as is so often the case in politics, the seeds of Bachmann’s collapse were sown at her best moment — the Ames victory.
According to two former advisers to the campaign, Bachmann left Ames with 20,000 identified strong Iowa supporters and another 12,000 who were leaning her way. “We came out of the straw poll with an identified base to win Iowa,” said a former Bachmann aide. (Romney wound up winning the caucuses with 30,015 votes; Bachmann got 6,073 votes.)
What happened next exposed a long-running split between Bachmann’s advisers and, to hear some tell it, doomed the campaign.
One wing of Bachmann’s strategy team — Rollins, pollster Ed Goeas and deputy campaign manager David Polyansky — wanted her to keep Iowa at the center of the campaign, traveling to the various debates around the country but focusing the rest of her time on the Hawkeye State.
“It was the Santorum strategy,” one source said referring to the Iowa-heavy schedule kept by the former Pennsylvania senator who finished in second place in the caucuses.
Another wing — composed of adviser Keith Nahigian and campaign jack-of-all-trades Brett O’Donnell, a duo derisively referred to as “the boys on the bus” by detractors — wanted Bachmann to take the fight national with equal emphasis on a series of early primary states.
Complicating Bachmann’s strategic next step after Ames was the fact that Texas Gov. Rick Perry had announced his presidential bid on the same day that she had won the straw poll. Perry was, at the time, being touted as the credible conservative alternative to Romney — someone with a deeper and more proven track record than Bachmann.
There was considerable consternation within Bachmann world about how to best combat Perry.
One example: Perry was set to headline a Lincoln Day Dinner in Blackhawk County, which includes Bachmann’s hometown of Waterloo, on the day after the straw poll. The Bachmann team got wind of the trip a few days before the straw poll and cajoled the county chairman into allowing Bachmann to not only speak at the event but speak after Perry.
The plan, according to one former Bachmann senior adviser, was for the candidate to be magnanimous — welcoming Perry to Iowa and politely jabbing at his late arrival in the state.
But, things went badly wrong. The Bachmann bus circled as Perry spoke and then worked the room of Republicans because “she didn’t want to be in the same room as Perry,” said the source. When Bachmann did eventually speak, she was “horrible” said the source. (Bachmann’s performance was widely panned; “Rick Perry schools Michele Bachmann in Waterloo,” read the headline from a Politico story on the event.)
Shortly after that failed attempt to cut Perry off at the pass in Iowa, Bachmann made her decision about the right next step for her campaign: She headed to Florida for a four-day campaign swing at the end of August, a trip that was originally planned for two days and amounted to a breaking point for Rollins, Goeas and Polyansky, all of whom either left the campaign or took on reduced roles around Labor Day.
“After winning the straw poll, she left the state, went on vacation and traveled elsewhere,” said Rollins. “She didn’t want to raise money.”
Money was, surprisingly enough, a problem for Bachmann. After raising more than $13 million for her 2010 re-election bid to the House. Bachmann’s fundraising never took off in quite the same way in the presidential race.
As of the end of September, she had collected $7.5 million — including a $2 million transfer from money she had sitting in her House account.
Those close to the Bachmann effort say that she didn’t reap the expected small-dollar fundraising burst after Ames — due in large part to the buzz around Perry — and never was able to build a large donor list that could have catapulted her into financial contention with the likes of Romney and Perry. (Bachmann, according to sources familiar with her finances, spent $1.5 million on Ames and left the straw poll with $2 million in the bank.)
Regardless of the specific reason(s), Bachmann’s inability to raise money made a comeback — in Iowa or anywhere else — a virtual impossibility. She was unable to run any television ads in Iowa until the final few days before the caucuses even as her far better-financed opponents (and their affiliated super PACs) spent millions getting out their message.
What Bachmann was left with was a breakneck bus tour through Iowa’s 99 counties in the final moments of the campaign, a pace that often had her doing upwards of 10 events in a single day.
“Rather than stacking away money for a final media push, money was instead allocated to yet another bus tour and robust advance operation,” said Rollins. “This left the campaign looking uncreditable with supporters and undecided voters as we were the only campaign with no paid media presence.”
That Bachmann ever had a chance in the presidential race came as a surprise to many Republicans who had followed her relatively brief career in Congress, a tenure highlighted more by tilting at ideological windmills than actual legislating.
But, starting with Bachmann’s stand-out performance in a mid-June debate as Saint Anselm’s College in New Hampshire, it became clear that she had the charisma that many of her rivals in the presidential race lacked.
While Bachmann’s detractors derided her as an over-rehearsed cheerleader — she told any and every crowd that her ultimate plan was to make President Obama a “one term president” — her strident opposition not just to Democratic but also Republican leadership in Washington resounded with voters sick of the status quo.
She shot up in polling, the first (of many) conservative alternative to former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. She drew huge crowds wherever she went, made the cover of Newsweek magazine and even started a national conversation about the difficulties of living — and campaigning — with migraine headaches. For a time, Bachmann was the “it girl” of the presidential race.
While it’s easy to simply dismiss Bachmann as a one-hit wonder — with that one hit being the Ames Straw Poll — that overlooks the fact that she remained a charismatic figure on the campaign trail and especially in debates right through the fall. (In the final debate before the Iowa caucuses Bachmann was strikingly effective; we put her in our “winners” category.)
In the end, the common strain among those who counseled Bachmann in the race — those who remain loyal to her and those who don’t — is a sense of an opportunity missed.
The rise of Santorum in Iowa, they argue, is evidence that Bachmann’s message of not settling for an inconsistent conservative had legs. And they believe that Bachmann’s charisma — not to mention her status as the only woman in the race — would have allowed her to deliver that message more effectively to Iowans that even Santorum.
Of course, every presidential candidate in history has a “what might have been” scenario. It’s why they run in the first place — they can see a path to victory that no one else can.
For Bachmann, she strayed from that path after winning the Ames Straw Poll and could never find her way back.