Rep. Michele Bachmann’s presidential campaign ended Wednesday, having set a new and grisly standard for early success followed by serial ineptitude and failure. And yet, Bachmann, who finished last in the Iowa caucuses, inadvertently became the best friend front-runner Mitt Romney had in the race. (More on this in a minute.)
Bachmann, a three-term congresswoman from suburban Minneapolis, stands as a historic figure in modern Republican presidential history. She’s the only Republican ever to win the Iowa straw poll and not finish first or second in the caucuses. Aside from George W. Bush, who got 7,418 votes in the poll in 1999, no winning Republican has won more votes at the event than Bachmann (4,823). Her fall from that perch is epic and she is almost entirely to blame.
Bachmann inspires at a distance and infuriates up close. Her management style can be charitably described as mercurial. Throughout her campaign, Bachmann suffered debilitating staff defections. Top-level adviser Ed Rollins quit after Bachmann’s straw-poll victory and within a month dismissed her candidacy as “out of money and ideas.” Her five-person paid staff in New Hampshire quit en masse (something Bachmann foolishly tried to deny), and she then lost her Iowa director days before the caucuses.
As she left the race, reading uncomfortably from her notes, Bachmann described President Obama’s health care reform law as the single greatest threat to America’s way of life, a vast experiment in “social engineering” that threatened the nation’s “very survival.” Interestingly, Rollins quit Bachmann’s campaign because she refused to expand her message beyond implacable hostility to health care reform.
Looking back on the smoking rubble of Bachmann’s campaign, it’s hard to see how she buffaloed Pawlenty out of the race. After all, Pawlenty was a two-term Minnesota governor who had nationwide donor contacts and who had attracted top-flight GOP operatives. He had been the subject of a flattering National Review cover story and looked to be the most serious challenger to Romney in the beginning. But Pawlenty finished third to Bachmann in the straw poll, with Rep. Ron Paul of Texas finishing second and—it should be carefully noted now but wasn’t then—former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum fourth. Pawlenty’s only goal in Iowa was to beat Bachmann in the straw poll. When he failed, he shut down his campaign, giving Bachmann bragging rights in Minnesota but not much else.
But that defeat gave Romney a great and unexpected gift. Knocking Pawlenty out of the race presented Romney with an opening to GOP donors Pawlenty was avidly seeking and, in some cases, enlisting. No one will ever know whether Pawlenty bailed out too soon; some top Republicans now believe he did. What’s clear is that Pawlenty’s quick exit made it an easier summer for Romney, giving him more direct access to campaign operatives across the country and even more time and space to curry favor with GOP donors.
Bachmann was in position to use the straw poll as a springboard. Every previous Republican, even obviously fringe candidates like televangelist Pat Robertson, did this. Robertson won the straw poll in 1987 and finished second to Sen. Bob Dole in 1988. Bachmann built nothing and seemed to shrink from significance.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s entrance into the race clearly stole some of Bachmann’s thunder, but Perry’s own flaws swiftly became evident, and a concentrated Iowa ground game—as Santorum has now proved—could have kept Bachmann in the game. Yet Bachmann’s Iowa campaign never expanded beyond her straw-poll victory. She never demonstrated Santorum’s dedication to grassroots politics or the tenacity of purpose to make her “Iowa only” strategy believable to dedicated Iowa Republicans who know the difference between organizing in the precincts and sermonizing on the stump.
Even so, Bachmann was not without an important final act, one that may now stand as a turning point in the campaign.
At the Fox News debate in Sioux City, Iowa, on Dec. 15, Bachmann lit into former House Speaker Newt Gingrich for his work as a handsomely paid consultant to government-backed mortgage giant Freddie Mac. Gingrich received between $1.6 million and $1.8 million in fees from Freddie Mac over an eight-year period. Gingrich described his services as rooted in historical observations about housing policy and denied ever lobbying for quasi-governmental mortgage provider.
At the time of the debate, Gingrich appeared to be the Iowa front-runner. A CNN/Time poll from Nov. 29 to Dec. 6 had his support at 33 percent. The average of the six Iowa polls taken from Dec. 3 to Dec. 13 pegged Gingrich’s support at 26 percent. Then came the Sioux City debate and two lengthy and angry exchanges between Gingrich and Bachmann. The former speaker denied lobbying for Freddie Mac or in any way doing its bidding on Capitol Hill. Bachmann would have none of it.
“We know that he cashed paychecks from Freddie Mac,” Bachmann said. “That’s the best evidence you can have. Over $1.6 million. And, frankly, I am shocked listening to the former speaker of the House, because [he] is continuing to defend the continuing practice of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae.”
Both Fannie and Freddie were involved in backstopping, with the implied support of federal taxpayers, millions of home mortgages during the expansion of the residential real estate bubble. When the bubble burst, the federal government bailed out both government-sponsored enterprises, taking them into conservatorship in 2008. To date, taxpayers have had to set aside at least $153 billion to keep them afloat.
During the Sioux City debate, Gingrich compared Fannie and Freddie to credit unions or electric cooperatives, and argued that “there are a lot of government-sponsored enterprises that are awfully important and do an awfully good job.” Economists and public-policy experts disputed this analogy, but no one did so as effectively as Bachmann.
“There is a big difference between a credit union and Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae,” she said, and went on to accuse Gingrich of trying to “influence senior Republicans to keep the scam going in Washington, D.C. That is absolutely wrong. We cannot have as our nominee someone who continues to stand for Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae.”
When Gingrich accused Bachmann of misleading debate viewers and insisted again that he never lobbied Freddie Mac, Bachmann countered with an assessment that lingered in the minds of Iowa voters for the remainder of the campaign and haunted Gingrich all the way to his disappointing fourth-place finish. “You don’t need to be within the technical definition of being a lobbyist to still be influence peddling,” she said.
In the six Iowa polls taken immediately after the Dec. 15 debate, Gingrich’s support averaged 14 points—down 12 percentage points from the six-poll average in December, right before the debate.
Bachmann wasn’t the only voice blasting Gingrich on this issue. The Romney-backing super PAC Restore Our Future spent more than $4 million in ads against Gingrich. But Bachmann’s attacks on Gingrich placed this Freddie Mac issue in stark relief in mid-December, and polling before and after this threshold moment indicates Gingrich was never the same after tangling with Bachmann.
So, Bachmann’s legacy in the 2012 campaign is oddly mixed. She fell further, faster, more messily, and more conspicuously than any previous Republican to win the Iowa straw poll. But she also took out Pawlenty and may have done the most damage to Gingrich.
And that makes Bachmann the best—and least anticipated—friend Romney has had or probably ever will have as he pursues the GOP nomination.
Neutral GOP operatives have noted Bachmann’s reluctance to criticize Romney throughout the campaign. When that decision is added to Bachmann’s role in Pawlenty’s demise and Gingrich’s wobbles, it’s clear the congresswoman has been Romney’s best friend throughout the campaign.
That may ave contributed to Romney’s sunny farewell.“She was a great candidate,” Romney said as he boarded his campaign bus in Manchester on Wednesday. “We’ll miss her.”