Rep. Michele BachmannMichele Marie BachmannBoehner says he voted for Trump, didn't push back on election claims because he's retired Boehner: Trump 'stepped all over their loyalty' by lying to followers Boehner finally calls it as he sees it MORE (R-Minn.) has gained considerable momentum over the past few weeks.
She raised more money than any of her presidential rivals in 2011’s first quarter, her presence at political events regularly swells crowds, and she’s running surprisingly strongly in early 2012 polling, despite relatively low name recognition.
Yet, for all that, leading pundits still dismiss her chances to become the eventual nominee.
Their argument is that her appeal is restricted to a limited constituency — the Tea Party faithful and social conservatives — and that while those groups might boost her to a strong showing in Iowa and South Carolina, they’re too limited to carry her to a national nomination.
While that might be true, let’s play a game of What If, since that’s the game Bachmann and her strategists are likely playing during all those visits to early primary states.
What if Bachmann were to develop a message to which mainstream and establishment Republicans responded? Is that possible? Would it make a presidential nomination possible, too?
It depends on whom you ask.
GOP consultant Mike Murphy, who worked for Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainGOP senators appalled by 'ridiculous' House infighting MSNBC's Nicolle Wallace, Chris Christie battle over Fox News Trump's attacks on McConnell seen as prelude to 2024 White House bid MORE’s (R-Ariz.) 2000 campaign, says it’s a moot point and that Bachmann is unable to transition from a Tea Party persona to a more inclusive political mindset.
“Much like Ringo giving up the drums for the concert piano, it would not work. She is what she is, politically. One audience. One appeal.”
Larry Sabato, director for the University of Virginia Center for Politics, takes a similar point of view, suggesting it’s a zero-sum game.
“If you’re going to fire up the Tea Partiers, then almost certainly you are going to alienate the part of the party base that prefers more genteel candidates who can actually win in November.”
That line of thinking suggests that even if Bachmann were to try to branch out, she’d be unsuccessful, because it would render her inauthentic and diminish her appeal with every camp.
Tom Jensen of the Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling agrees, though he lays blame not at Bachmann’s feet but at the doorstep of the Tea Party movement that he claims is unable to integrate disparate points of view.
“If she made any sort of overtures toward the center, she would probably lose that niche, and it would scuttle her chances,” he said.
But is Bachmann’s “niche” strong enough to carry her to a win?
Based on his polling, in a best-case scenario Jensen thinks unified Tea Party support for Bachmann could yield her 20-25 percent of the vote in an individual primary. But only a large, fragmented field could turn that 20-25 percent into a winning number.
In that sort of fragmentation, she has a legitimate shot, Sabato concurs, claiming Bachmann could “overwhelm the mainstream candidates.”
And there’s reason to believe those sorts of stars could align for her.
The conventional wisdom is that the GOP establishment will quickly settle on former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman or former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
But this cycle’s establishment seems neither unified behind one candidate nor particularly excited about one. Big-name donors who gravitate toward establishment candidates have been wary about choosing a winner, because no one’s easily identified as one.
So imagine, for a second, a scenario where mainstream Republicans are squabbling over their standard-bearer as Tea Party and grassroots conservatives coalesce around their favorite.
In a contest where the Tea Party unites behind a candidate amid mainstream Republican rankling, it’s quite possible that the 20-25 percent Bachmann could score in a primary might be enough to win and send shock waves through the party.
Former George W. Bush strategist and No Labels co-founder Mark McKinnon has confessed to his disagreements with Bachmann before, but says she’s not to be underestimated.
“I think she has huge potential in Iowa and South Carolina. And if you win those two states in the Republican primaries, you are off to the races.”
Further, once she starts winning, McKinnon claims, she can “refine her message to make it more appealing to a wider community.”
“The establishment may scoff now,” he said, “but if Bachmann starts winning, they will crawl over broken glass to kiss her ring.”
That would bring us full circle: Bachmann might not win by bringing the establishment on board, but the establishment could be brought on board very quickly if she starts winning.
Heinze, the founder of GOP12.com, is a member of staff at The Hill. Find his column, GOP Presidential Primary, on thehill.com