Bachmann campaign hopes organizational strength keeps her in the race

Bachmann campaigns in Iowa
Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann at a campaign stop at a community center in Rock Rapids, Iowa on Friday, Oct. 14.
MPR Photo/Mark Zdechlik

As Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann prepares for the Iowa caucuses Jan. 3, her campaign is hoping what she lacks in popular support she may make up with her campaign organization in the state.

Much of the coverage of the race has revolved around candidates' standing in the polls. But the caucuses tend to be much more of a test of a candidate's organizational strength, rather than a popularity contest. The caucuses will be the first voting of the 2012 GOP presidential nomination process to determine who will take on President Obama next year.

University of Iowa political science professor Tim Hagle said Bachmann's relatively strong Iowa campaign operation positions her to get her message to the right people. If 2008 is any indication of what's to come this election cycle, about 1 in 5 registered Iowa Republicans will participate.

"She can rely on that organization that she had in place even by mid-August and has built on it to a certain extent because she's had to go back to a variety of grassroots, retail politics sorts of activities that she's really very good at, that she's probably going to have a pretty strong organization that she can draw on to make sure that people turn out for the caucuses and that could very well help her," he said.

Having an early organizational advantage will be even more valuable this time around because the caucuses have been moved up a full one month from the last presidential election, leaving everyone with less time to orchestrate a strong caucus showing. And for Bachmann, a strong finish is required to re-energize her fledgling campaign.

Bachmann event
An attendee at a Michele Bachmann campaign event in Webster City, Iowa in November 2011 looks over a sign-up sheet to help with her campaign.
MPR Photo/Mark Zdechlik

At a stop last month in Webster City, Bachmann shook hands and posed for pictures as her campaign staff circulated clipboards to get names and contact information of the people who came to see her.

Bachmann is beefing up her staffing in Iowa with caucus experts. Some of the same people who helped former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee score a surprise 2008 Iowa win are now working for her campaign in the state.

Compared to Bachmann, Ron Paul and Rick Santorum, the front-runners in most polls are all relatively disorganized in Iowa, Hagle said.

"The folks that seem to be riding high in the polls both nationally and even here in Iowa, seem to be the ones that don't have a really strong ground game (in Iowa)," he said.

A good example is Newt Gingrich. The former house speaker has shot to the top of national polls in recent weeks, but two weeks ago following a candidates' forum in Des Moines he acknowledged his Iowa organization needed some major additions.

"If we were having the caucus tonight we wouldn't be ready," he said. "They don't have the caucus tonight. We'll have five to seven offices in the very near future, one of which I'm proud to announce is going to be in Iowa City and I think will be a lot of fun."

More than two weeks later, Gingrich has just one Iowa office. It's in Des Moines.

Bachmann is taking a different approach, said Drake University political science professor Dennis Goldford.

"What Bachmann is doing is attempting to become Huckabee 2.0, that is, she's pursuing the conservative evangelicals," he said.

Unlike many of the GOP candidates, Goldford said, no one disputes Bachmann is a true conservative. He said she has a different hurdle with evangelicals.

"They also ask the question, 'Is she electable?'" Goldford said. "And that's the main problem she has."

To counter electability concerns, Bachmann is arguing that Republicans are virtually guaranteed victory in next year's presidential election, and that conservatives should jump at the chance of nominating one of their own; someone like her.

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.