After Michele Bachmann officially announced her candidacy yesterday, CNN asked me to assess her chances of winning the nomination. My response is now featured at their site, which discusses the historical obstacles facing House members who make presidential nomination bids. Not one sitting Congressman has ever won a party’s nomination since the beginning of the primary era in 1912, but Bachmann might be an exception:
Anything is impossible until someone does it. The problem for House candidates is that they lack solid constituencies. Where senators and governors win statewide elections and can lay claim to fairly broad constituencies, any House member represents only around 800,000 people at most. …
Bachmann has an answer for that in the Tea Party. She began devoting time and attention to the Tea Party when it began, and she is now one of its leading lights. That gives Bachmann a claim to a national constituency that most candidates coming out of the House cannot match.
At the moment, she doesn’t have any Tea Party competition for the nomination, which means that she can harness the group’s enthusiasm and organizing efforts. That would change if Sarah Palin enters the race, and could also change if Texas Gov. Rick Perry throws his hat in the ring, although to a lesser degree. If not, Bachmann would have the kind of grass-roots support that could make the difference in a race without a breakaway frontrunner — especially in Iowa’s opening caucuses, where organization plays a critical role in success.
My friend Eric Ostermeier did some intriguing historical research on the topic of House members and presidential bids. Since Rep. Champ Clark managed to wangle a first-ballot lead in the 1912 Democratic convention, more than thirty House members have launched official bids for a presidential nomination. Twenty-one of those came after 1972. While the efforts were entirely unsuccessful, the candidates themselves usually won their re-election bids if they chose to run (with only Bob Dornan being the exception). That bodes well for Bachmann if her bid follows the usual historical trajectory, although Bachmann has a fairly safe district anyway.
The differences between Bachmann and the earlier candidates go beyond the Tea Party, although they’re linked to it. Bachmann has high name recognition, in part because of the Tea Party, but also in part because she regularly jousts with opponents on cable-TV shows. Bachmann is also a prodigious fundraiser. In fact, she has so much money in her coffers after the 2010 cycle (in which she barely broke a sweat in winning her re-election over Taryl Clark) that Minnesotans figured she was aiming for a Senate run against Amy Klobuchar before Bachmann began showing an interest in a presidential run.
Bachmann still faces long odds, and her record will come under attack. The media has engaged in some silliness over the John Wayne comment in Iowa and another about John Quincy Adams; Politico tries a more serious tack today by aiming at her “thin” legislative record:
Rep. Michele Bachmann is surging in the GOP presidential polls and barnstorming Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, but as she sprints toward the front of the Republican pack, there’s a major hole in her political résumé: legislation.
Now in her third House term, Bachmann has never had a bill or resolution she’s sponsored signed into law, and she’s never wielded a committee gavel, either at the full or subcommittee level. Bachmann’s amendments and bills have rarely been considered by any committee, even with the House under GOP control. In a chamber that rewards substantive policy work and insider maneuvering, Bachmann has shunned the inside game, choosing to be more of a bomb thrower than a legislator.
It’s a fair point. Republicans certainly used the same argument against John Kerry, who spent twenty years in the Senate without any significant legislative accomplishments. Bachmann joined the House when Republicans went into the minority, though, which means she wasn’t going to get any opportunity to score legislative victories on the conservative issues she champions. And to their credit, Politico also notes that another Democrat didn’t have much going for him when he ran for President, either:
Of course, having a thin legislative résumé isn’t a dead end for a presidential run — Obama started running for president just two years into his Senate term and didn’t have a substantive list of congressional accomplishments.
As far as I recall, Obama had only one, which was the legislation he co-sponsored with Tom Coburn to require the federal government to create a searchable database of government spending. Obama only served for less than half the time Bachmann has before running for President, too, although Republicans probably would like to make an argument that Obama’s incompetence came from his lack of experience in executive roles, an argument that a Bachmann candidacy might make somewhat more difficult.
So Bachmann may have more obstacles than most to get to the nomination, but they aren’t insurmountable, and she has some unique advantages that didn’t exist for other House members in the past. As I conclude in my CNN piece, improbable does not equal impossible.