We’ve had a couple of debates, but the 2012 campaign will be truly under way next month when the Iowa Republican Party holds its famed Ames Straw Poll. Like the Iowa caucuses themselves, the straw poll has only limited predictive value when it comes to the GOP nomination: George H.W. Bush won the inaugural straw poll before the 1980 election, when he didn’t wind up with the nomination, and finished just third before the 1988 contest, when he did. Bob Dole tied for first when he ran and won the nomination in 1996, but John McCain captured the 2008 nomination despite finishing a miserable tenth in the straw poll. The only person to win the straw poll and the presidency was George W. Bush in 2000.
So why does the straw poll (which takes place 15 months before a presidential election in which there’s no incumbent Republican president) get so much attention? For the same reason the Iowa caucuses do: It provides a focus for the campaign in its early stages, and it can give a candidate momentum — which can then be seized or frittered away.
And going into next month’s contest, Michele Bachmann holds both the campaign’s focus and its momentum.
The Iowa native, who represents Minnesota in Congress, has surpassed Mitt Romney among likely caucus-goers in a poll conducted for the Iowa Republican. At 25 percent to 21 percent, her lead is just within the poll’s margin of error. But among the “most attentive voters,” she has a commanding 14-point lead over Romney (who, among those voters, also has Herman Cain and Tim Pawlenty nipping more closely at his heels). She also has, by far, the largest spread between her favorable and unfavorable ratings at a whopping 65 percentage points.
All of which means she’ll probably be taking more shots from her opponents over the next 31 days.
Pawlenty began — with a noticeably less strident criticism than the “Obamneycare” line he famously uttered and then retreated from a day later — by noting that Bachmann hasn’t been very successful in Congress at getting legislation passed and doesn’t have executive experience.
The first criticism is a little unfair. Until this January, Bachmann had only served in the minority party while Nancy Pelosi and Co. ruled the House of Representatives. Had Bachmann championed the kind of legislation that might have gotten through the Pelosi House, she probably wouldn’t have the kind of tea-party support that has made her a legitimate contender.
The executive experience criticism is much more on point. The Republicans rightly pilloried Barack Obama as a candidate for his lack of executive experience, and now he will be running as an incumbent at the end of his first term.
In fact, I don’t see how the GOP can hope to win if it doesn’t nominate someone without extensive executive experience, most likely as a governor. I think that’s a large part of why (former Massachusetts Gov.) Romney is leading most other polls, why (former Minnesota Gov.) Pawlenty still has a chance, why many Republicans wanted Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels to run and why many Republicans now want Texas Gov. Rick Perry to enter the race. Cain has executive experience of a different kind, in corporate America and at the Kansas City Federal Reserve, and it remains to be seen if voters will consider his resume on a par with those of past state governors.
Bachmann’s response to Pawlenty’s executive criticism — that executive experience is no help if the candidate produced “more of the same big government as usual” — might help her get by from now until the straw poll. But ultimately, I don’t think it is winning defense.
– By Kyle Wingfield