PJ Media

Has Michele Bachmann Become Mitt Romney’s Main Rival?

Rasmussen Reports conducted the first poll of likely Republican primary voters  after the New Hampshire GOP debate laR week. The survey appeared to show a breakout for Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, as she vaulted into second place in the GOP race with 19% support from Republican voters, trailing only Mitt Romney at 33%.

The survey, conducted among 1,000 likely GOP primary voters across the country, was taken one day after the debate at Saint Anselm College, one in which Bachmann was identified by many political analysts as having had a very good night.

The polling numbers for Bachmann suggested to some that she had become the principal alternative for the Tea Party wing of the GOP to former Governor Romney. The Rasmussen survey indicated that Romney and Bachmann were each the choice of 26% of those in the survey who self-identified as Tea Party members. Romney led Bachmann by just over a 2 to 1 margin, 36% to 16%, among all others in the survey. Bachmann was also judged to be the most conservative of those whose names were offered to respondents.

One name, however, was not offered as a choice to those taking part in the Rasmussen survey — that of former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin. Palin has not entered the race for the nomination, and it is pure speculation at this point whether she will in the future. In the other eight GOP candidate polls listed by RealClearPolitcs, Palin was one of the candidates offered as a choice to survey respondents. In the Rasmussen survey, the only national poll conducted since the New Hampshire debate, Palin was left off, though Jon Huntsman, the former Utah governor who has not formally entered the race but is considered certain to do so, was included.

The other eight most recent GOP surveys listed by RealClearPolitics included both Bachmann and Palin. In those eight surveys, Palin averaged 18% support, second to Romney at 23.4%, while Bachman averaged 4.8% All of those polls were concluded before the New Hampshire debate with the exception of one by NBC and the Wall Street Journal that surveyed over five days, the final one the night of the debate.

It is pretty clear that the absence of Palin from the Rasmussen survey aided Bachman. It is not clear, however, how high Bachmann will poll if Palin were to be  included in future surveys while her candidate status remained unclear, or were she to enter the race. Prior to the New Hampshire debate, during which Bachmann formally announced her entrance into  the race (it had been widely assumed for weeks that she was running), Bachmann was tied with Tim Pawlenty, a fellow Minnesotan, and trailed Romney, Palin, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, and Ron Paul. In the three surveys where former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani was one of the choices, he too led Bachmann, finishing second or third in each survey.

It will take a few more surveys, both with and without Palin, to better gauge Bachmann’s trajectory. In any case, she starts the race with some good notices and  an opportunity to do well in the early contests. The Rasmussen poll makes her the most visible alternative to Romney for now.

One of the fascinating things about the debate Monday and the pundit class reaction to Bachmann was how much more favorable it was than the treatment that Palin has received from many of the same people the last two and a half years. Since the two women share a few things — good looks, mothers to five children, and solid conservative credentials, especially on social and economic policy — the contrast in the coverage of the two is striking.

Of course, it is very early in the Bachmann “watch.” And if she became the likely GOP standard-bearer, then the normal hostile mainstream media coverage of a conservative woman, especially one viewed as a potential threat to Barack Obama, would almost certainly occur. Nonetheless, Bachmann may have announced at an auspicious time. The media’s obsessive coverage in the last two weeks of the release of the Palin emails from her years as governor has been embarrassing. Could Bachmann be getting some good feedback in order to show that the MSM retains a modicum of decency and fairness and does not automatically fire its guns recklessly at all conservative women?

It is possible that Bachmann’s early emergence as a leading contender could help make Palin’s decision easier. To a large extent, the two women share some of the same space, to use marketing terminology. Bachmann’s fast start might make it more difficult for Palin to gain traction if she becomes a candidate. On the other hand, if Palin now entered the race, it would likely make both Bachmann and Palin longer shots for the nomination.

Bachmann’s fast start also greatly complicates Tim Pawlenty’s opportunity to position himself as the principal alternative to Romney. Pawlenty received  poor notices for his debate performance, mainly due to the sense that he pulled his punches and refused an opportunity to go after Mitt Romney for his health care plan as governor of Massachusetts, after mocking it a day before the debate. Romney’s plan is seen by many as having served as a prelude  to ObamaCare, which remains very unpopular with Republicans and many independents.

Both Pawlenty and Bachmann are invested in the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses, coming as they do from a neighboring state. In Bachmann’s case, she also grew up in Iowa. With Mitt Romney expected  to do very well in the New Hampshire primary which follows Iowa, the caucuses are an opportunity  for one of the other GOP candidates to emerge in a state where social conservatives are a majority of the GOP  electorate. Mike Huckabee won Iowa in 2008, and moved into the front tier of candidates. If Bachmann continues to gain support, then she may become the consensus candidate for social conservatives and Tea Party members in Iowa, draining support from Cain and Santorum, and complicating Pawlenty’s path to a win in the state.

For now, Pawlenty, Gingrich and Huntsman seem to be competing with Romney for the “establishment” GOP vote,  while the other candidates pursue social conservatives and Tea Party members, and Ron Paul attracts his every-four-years band of brothers lining up to eliminate the Federal Reserve Bank. Romney’s strong debate  performance, enhanced by the absence of any shots normally taken at the frontrunner in early debates, has enabled him to open up a big lead over his opponents in the “establishment” half of the GOP race. The Rasmussen poll suggests that Romney for now is also holding his own with Tea Party members who, like other conservatives, seem focused on winning the general election versus Obama in 2012, and may consider Romney a strong general election candidate.

Romney will benefit if the social conservative/Tea Party mini-primary remains crowded and without a clear frontrunner. If Palin enters the race, that is good news for Romney, since it results in a split vote between Bachmann and Palin. If Palin passes on the race but Texas Governor Rick Perry enters, he could be competitive in both of the GOP mini-primaries, though likely more on the social conservative/Tea Party side.

One rumor going around last week was that Palin would not become a candidate, but instead try to play kingmaker by endorsing Perry if he entered the race. That scenario would complicate things for Bachmann. At the GOP event in New Orleans this weekend, both Bachmann and Perry received star treatment, though Paul won the meaningless straw poll .

Doe Bachmann have a real chance at the nomination? She certainly is in better shape today than a week ago. She is a fresh face on the national scene, she has genuine charisma, and her views are in synch with conservatives who dominate the nominating process. But it will take a few more surveys that validate the Rasmussen numbers before too much  can be drawn from her very good first week. And she can hope that both Palin and Perry decide 2012 is not the year for them.