Remember way back in 2009 when Michele Bachmann was just a zany backbencher in the House of Representatives, destined to be one day barely remembered for her outlandish statements, the second coming of Helen Chenoweth? Well, if recent polling data has much predictive value, then those days are over, and she is now officially Mitt Romney’s main contender for the Republican presidential nomination. Since Bachmann’s strong performance in last month’s Republican presidential debate and her concurrent campaign announcement, she has been making a strong showing in multiple surveys.
A Des Moines Register poll in late June had Bachmann just one point behind Romney in Iowa, at 22 percent to his 23 percent. Both are way ahead of the rest of the pack, which features Herman Cain at 10 percent and Bachmann’s fellow Minnesotan Tim Pawlenty at a mere 6 percent. Meanwhile, Bachmann appears to be in second in New Hampshire as well. Two polls from last week have her in that position, trailing Romney. According to Public Policy Polling Bachmann registers 18 percent support among Republican primary voters, while University of New Hampshire’s Granite State poll gives her 12 percent.
Bachmann’s strong showing in New Hampshire is especially remarkable—some might say worrisome—given the state’s famed identity as bastion of socially liberal Republicanism. Bachmann is a devout evangelical with a penchant for making polarizing statements. New Hampshire is, according to a Gallup survey, the second least religious state in the country after neighboring Vermont. “New Hampshire Republicans are by and large Northeastern Republicans, what we used to call Rockefeller Republicans,” says Andrew Smith, director of the Granite State poll. “They tend to be quite moderate on social issues.” If Bachmann can come in second in New Hampshire, then presumably she could win in states like Iowa and South Carolina that have a much larger evangelical and socially conservative Republican electorate.
But not so fast. Polls are a lagging indicator. News takes days or weeks to settle into people’s brains, and polls are conducted over a similar period. The results we have seen recently reflect the views of voters in the aftermath of the June 13 debate in New Hampshire. It will be weeks before we know how recent revelations of the homophobic statements and voodoo psychology of Bachmann’s husband, Marcus, will affect her poll numbers.
More generally, polling numbers will often flutter upwards before falling back to earth when a candidate first bursts on the scene. About six weeks ago there was a brief bubble of speculation around Rudy Giuliani, who rose to the top of a national CNN poll. He has hardly been heard from since. A year ago Newt Gingrich was at 11 percent in the Granite State poll; now he gets 1 percent, or less than the margin of error. Cain’s bubble is already deflating, as he has lost one-third of his support in Iowa since last month’s PPP poll. “Many candidates have gone up when they got media attention,” notes Smith. So between now and next February, Bachmann has plenty of time to lose her luster.
That said, Bachmann does have one major asset that she showed off at the debate which will not go away. “She’s the one Republican candidate with charisma,” says Smith. “The other guys are Wonder Bread and mayonnaise sandwiches. She’s got a spunk and confidence about her that’s quite noticeable.” So Bachmann had better hope a certain other spunky candidate doesn’t get in the race.