You know the Republican presidential race has changed when you start seeing headlines wondering “How To Stop Bachmann.” That was the title of a Jonathan Chait piece in the New Republic yesterday that came only a day after Ed Kilgore wrote on the same site asking whether Bachmann could “Survive Being Taken Seriously?”
The reason for this hysteria can be found in the poll numbers that demonstrate the Minnesota congresswoman has evolved in the last month from a marginal player in the GOP presidential race to a major contender. The latest such survey came from the liberal-leaning Public Policy Polling that shows Bachmann leading in both Oregon and Montana. While it was possible to rationalize her surge in Iowa, a state where Christian conservative activists have always been highly influential and where she has some roots, it is difficult to dismiss her lead in Oregon.
The question for the moment is how seriously to take these polls.
On the one hand, any poll this far in advance of the first votes being cast has to be taken with a shovelful of salt. Four years ago at this time, Hillary Clinton was the certain Democratic nominee, John McCain’s candidacy had crashed and burned and Rudy Giuliani was looking like a strong contender in 2008.
Like those 2007 surveys, polls at this point in the election cycle say more about name recognition than anything else. That’s why Clinton and Giuliani were doing so well four years ago and why someone like Mitt Romney is considered a frontrunner today. But those arguments don’t tell us much about Bachmann’s surge. Unlike Romney, who has been running for president for more than five years, Bachmann was a relative unknown outside of the Tea Party movement until just a few weeks ago. Her poll numbers are not the product of longstanding name recognition. Rather, they say everything about the way she has burst upon the scene looking and sounding like a confident, smart woman who isn’t afraid to take on either Obama or her Republican rivals. While other candidates, such as Tim Pawlenty, have presented far stronger positions on the economy and foreign policy, there’s no getting around the fact Republicans seem to like Bachmann better so far.
Bachmann is clearly gaffe prone, and if that doesn’t change, it will hurt her. Her conservative Christian views will provide plenty of fodder for liberal gripes. She is now undergoing the kind of scrutiny the liberal media always give conservatives and is a process designed to demonize Bachmann. It will be up to Bachmann to keep her composure and to not only echo Ronald Reagan’s worldview in her speeches but also adopt the same sunny tone and tolerant attitude toward critics that characterized the Gipper’s attitude to the press.
But whether or not she falters over the course of the long slog to the first primaries and caucuses, it’s clear Bachmann appeals to GOP activists in a way few suspected. That’s what the polls are reflecting, and that’s something that can’t be wished away by those who dislike her politics or her personality.