Ames, Iowa — The party’s over.
But you’d never know it from the way Michele Bachmann campaigns.
The last time I saw Bachmann campaigning in Iowa were the days surrounding the Ames Straw Poll. Every event was pandemonium: her huge campaign bus wheeling in and out of campaign spots, Elvis songs blasting so loud that my ears are still ringing from transcribing interviews, security guards who tightly boxed her movements, and supporters practically knocking each other over to get close to Bachmann. When she spoke to reporters, she only called on three outlets (all “mainstream media,” for those keeping score), ignoring everyone else.
It’s a whole different ball game these days for Bachmann, who has gone from 22 percent support in an August 8 Rasmussen poll, a week before she won Ames, to 8 percent in an October 30 Des Moines Register
poll. Marching-band-style music plays after her speech, and reporters on the Bachmann beat inform me that the King left the building around mid-September. Her bus, they tell me, occasionally shows up for a celebrity appearance, but is mostly abandoned.
At the press conference held after Bachmann’s economic speech at the Iowa State University, any reporter can ask a question. (Even the university’s student newspaper gets singled out for a question.) When I ask Bachmann how she intends to climb back up in the polls in Iowa, she says, “The real contest is January 3. That’s what we’re looking forward to. We have a very strong, solid base of support, probably more so than any other candidate in the state. We have a wonderful infrastructure. We have a great team here in Iowa, and so we’re building on that.” Does she intend to make changes in her campaign? “We had a very strong message that resonated with people across the summer, and we’ll continue to build on that,” she responds.
The frontrunner trappings are gone. But Bachmann remains the same. It’s hard to detect any difference whatsoever in how she behaves. She delivers speeches with the same passion as she did before, both her tone and her body language unusually active. She remains more skillful than most of her male rivals at talking to and connecting with actual voters. Somewhat surprisingly, Bachmann seems more appealing in this bare-bones campaigning than she ever did when the money was there to make every event a theatrical production worthy of Broadway (or at least Off-Broadway).
In her speech at Ames, Bachmann tries to gain some traction in the economic-plan contest, currently dominated by Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 plan and Rick Perry’s flat-tax proposal. Bachmann released an eleven-point plan last month that garnered almost no attention. (In contrast, when Jon Huntsman released a plan in August, his low standing in the polls didn’t deter some free-market enthusiasts, including the Wall Street Journal, from studying and praising the proposals.) But if Mitt Romney’s weakness is a knack for bumper-sticker-defying specificity, Bachmann’s is a tendency toward sweeping generalization.
“The real world of taxation is not reducible to a sound bite or a bumper sticker,” she says in her speech. But in the Q&A after the speech, asked if she has any specific tax rates, Bachmann demurs. “So as to specific rates, my plan gives specific principles that I’ll abide by,” she says. There are certain economic issues that do stir Bachmann: repealing Dodd-Frank, making all Americans pay income tax (even if it’s $10 a year), and temporarily eliminating taxes on corporate profits so they can repatriated to the United States. But overall, for a former federal tax lawyer, Bachmann seems remarkably averse to numbers.