Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry have tag teamed to dominate the news cycles in recent days. And as the opinionatti of the punditocracy (or whatever fun little nicknames you prefer) struggle to wrap their heads around what a straw poll victory and a late entry into the Presidential sweepstakes mean, they keep asking an intriguing question: Are these candidates too conservative to win a general election matchup against President Barack Obama?
This is especially true of the coverage of Bachmann; but taken together the Minnesota Congresswoman and the Texas Governor really display why this question is, to use the technical terms, BS.
No serious analyst of the race really believes Michele Bachmann has a snowball’s chance in the current residence of Iowa native John Wayne Gacy. If she wins the Republican nomination, she will most likely lose badly to the incumbent – maybe not Mondale vs. Reagan bad, but probably Dole vs. Clinton bad. Bachmann will simply not resonate with a broad audience of American voters.
If Bachmann loses, it will not be for her views but for her tendency for gaffery. Aside from confusing 20th century alpha male John Wayne with creepy clown artist/serial killer Gacy, Bachmann celebrated the anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death by wishing The King a happy birthday. For many political viewers, Bachmann’s introduction to the national stage came during a horribly flubbed “tea party response” to the State of the Union address.
The trend line is evident: under the glare of the national spotlight, Bachmann is unpolished, rough, and prone to mistakes. She is, it seems, an incompetent campaigner. Audiences who already agree with her message will overlook that, but audiences who need convincing will not. Those folks will become more accepting of the other, seemingly competent voices who call her extreme.
Then comes the media storyline: Conservative goes down in flames to Mainstream Candidate.
You saw plenty of it in 2010, when tea partiers were blamed for costing Republicans gains in the US Senate. Primary victories by Sharron Angle in Nevada, Joe Miller in Alaska, and Christine O’Donnell in Delaware were frequently cited as an example of primaries run amok.
All three lost, of course. Angle and Miller had run-ins with the media that suggested the pressures of the campaign were getting to them; O’Donnell’s campaign was only notable for its ill-advised “I am not a witch” ad. Meanwhile, Marco Rubio and Rand Paul won their Senate races. Arch-conservative Ronald Reagan was President; Moderates Gerald Ford, George H.W. Bush, and Bob Dole were a half-termer, a one-termer and a no-termer, respectively.
A candidate has to appeal to voters, regardless of where they sit on the political spectrum. Barack Obama may have been the most ideologically-driven to assume the Presidency since Lyndon Johnson; he was also likeable and projected strength.
As he begins his Presidential campaign, Rick Perry will face the same question as Bachmann: Is he “too conservative to win”? And whether the eventual Republican nominee is Perry, Bachmann, or even Mitt Romney, the Obama campaign will surely try to stick the “right-wing extremist” label squarely on their metaphorical forehead.
Candidates with good, disciplined messages don’t let those labels stick.