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.
Later that night, Bachmann attends the Dallas County GOP dinner in Adel, Iowa. Rick Santorum, the only other candidate present, notes in his speech that he and Bachmann were also both at another event recently. Considering that both appear to be trying to fill the “Mike Huckabee slot” in the Iowa caucuses, these paired appearances are likely to be a constant over the next two months. “A really good area of her constituency is Christian conservatives,” says Bachmann spokeswoman Alice Stewart. “And so, she speaks at a lot of churches. She’ll be speaking at churches just about every Sunday through the caucuses.”
After thanking the people who made “this wonderful dinner,” Bachmann jokes, “I’m always so happy to come when they ask me. All I have to ask is ‘Do I have to make dinner?’ And if I don’t have to make dinner, and I can eat other people’s food, it’s a very good night.”
During her speech, Bachmann pushes her theme of authentic, consistent conservatism, saying she’d “put [her] spine up against any candidate who’s running in this race.”
“You won’t find me on the YouTube; you won’t find me not standing for life; you won’t find me not standing for marriage . . . you won’t find me not standing strong for fiscal policy,” she says, adding that it’s vital for conservatives to refuse to “settle on a candidate who’s any less than completely committed to our agenda.”
Bachmann is also quick to stress her fighter instincts, noting that as the only girl in her family, she learned from her brothers how to be tough. “In 2012, we need one very tough hombre or hombrette to take on Barack Obama,” Bachmann says, before referencing Margaret Thatcher. “Why is it that the Left always get their agenda and we don’t?” she asks later on in her speech. “It’s because we don’t fight. . . . You know who doesn’t fight? Republicans don’t fight. It is time that we take the gloves off.”
Before the speech, Bachmann mingles with dinner attendees. “She likes talking with people. She likes visiting with them,” Stewart says, noting the plan is for Bachmann to spend 40 more days campaigning in Iowa before the caucuses. “We’re going to really focus on retail stops, where she can connect with people one-on-one.”
Bachmann warmly tells one woman how grateful she is to see her and, after posing for a photo with another woman and her child, asks the woman if the child (whose hand was in her mouth) was teething. When Tammy Hardersen, a retiree from Waukee, Iowa, tells Bachmann she remembers meeting her a few months ago at an event, Bachmann gushes, “Yes, yes, that was so much fun. And you were wearing a scarf then, were you?” Hardersen, who was wearing a scarf at the dinner, tells me later she is dubious that she was wearing a scarf at the previous Bachmann event: It would have been a hot day.
“She’s upfront and honest; she just tells it like it is,” says Deb Velcher, a dinner attendee who plans to vote for Bachmann in the caucuses. “And she’s a woman.”
“As Herman Cain has now faced some problems, we’ll see if the support shifts back again [to Bachmann],” remarks Kathy Lewis, who owns a farm with her husband in Adel. Lewis says that Cain “stood out” to her when she was first getting to know the candidates but that “as the debates and everything have gone on,” she has come to appreciate Bachmann’s “passion” and “conservative views.”
She’s also drawn to Bachmann’s consistency. “I had just heard that the Republicans are backing down on the [Obamacare] repeal, saying well, there’s parts of it we like. And no, I don’t want compromise. I want it gone,” Lewis says, noting she anticipates voting for Bachmann in the caucuses.
As it happens, Bachmann gets raucous applause during her speech at the next night’s Reagan Dinner in Des Moines for her “no compromise” theme. Delivered right after her invocation that Obama “will be a one-term president” (a line that Bachmann, surprisingly, delivers so rapidly this night that there is no chance for the audience to chant it with her, normally a staple of Bachmann speeches), she stresses the necessity of a candidate willing to fight.
“We have to have a commitment that is absolutely ground in cement that our nominee will be an individual who will stand strong and make sure there is no compromise with repealing Obamacare 100 percent; no compromise with repealing Dodd-Frank, the jobs and housing destruction act 100 percent; no compromise abolishing the tax code and [re]creating it with a Ronald Reagan–style pro-growth tax code; no compromise with liberty,” she says. “No compromise. That’s America. We’ve done it before. We’ll do it again.”
A couple of the Reagan dinner attendees I speak to view the conventional wisdom as underestimating Bachmann’s chances in Iowa. “The perception is that perhaps she’s gotten some facts wrong, or she doesn’t always say things in a skillful way,” says Ray Dearin, a professor emeritus at the Iowa State University. “That’s the national perception. I haven’t noticed that. I’ve seen her a lot lately, and she always seems to have good crowds and be well-received.”
“I know she’ll come back,” says Bob Mason, a semi-retired Iowan farmer who intends to vote for Bachmann. “This is home country [for Bachmann]. She did real well in the straw poll, of course, and won it. A lot of the others, at least some of the others, have had their day already. Some of them kind of pushed her down in the polls. But I think when it’s over with, I believe she’ll probably pull it out. I really do. I’m not just saying that.”
“Being at Ames was a fun homecoming for me,” Bachmann told the reporters after her economic speech at Iowa State University. The straw poll was also held at the university, in the parking lots and lawns bordering another building on the campus. As I passed it on the way to Bachmann’s speech, there was no marker to indicate that, on this patch of grass, Dairy Queen employees had swirled soft serve cones for hundreds as Tim Pawlenty’s presidential dreams died; or that, adjoining these spaces in the parking lot, a buoyant Bachmann had celebrated with supporters after winning the straw poll, her husband Marcus passing out balloons to float as high as Bachmann’s hopes were at the time.
Even if her fundraising and poll numbers are low now, the campaign remains optimistic that Bachmann will rise again and be more than a one-hit-wonder candidate who triumphed at Ames.
“We’re at that point in the process where the people who are going to go to their caucus on January 3 are starting to make their choices again,” says Eric Woolson, Bachmann’s Iowa campaign manager, and a longtime Iowa political veteran. “I just feel very confident that they know, when they size up all the candidates, they’re going to go with the consistent conservative, they’re going to go with somebody who did have success in the straw poll, and they’re going to go with her.”
— Katrina Trinko is an NRO reporter.