Campaign manager Keith Nahigian outlines Michele Bachmann’s path to victory for the 2012 election.
WASHINGTON — Michele Bachmann’s campaign manager laid out his candidate’s path to victory in 2012 in a web video this week, saying victories in the early voting states of Iowa and South Carolina will secure the Republican presidential nomination for Bachmann.
It’s a pathway conservative presidential candidates frequently follow, including the winner of the 2008 Iowa caucuses, Mike Huckabee.
But with more conservatives in the race this year, Bachmann’s path is more crowded than in past races — the only two candidates with a New Hampshire-first strategy are relative moderates Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman, meaning there are more candidates focusing on what Chip Saltsman dubs the “Iowa-South Carolina two-step.”
“I think that’s her path. The problem is she’s not the only one on that path,” said Saltsman, the national chairman of Huckabee’s campaign in 2008. “It’s the right strategy for Michele Bachmann. It’s also the right strategy for Rick Perry, and Rick Santorum, and Newt Gingrich and others.”
Iowa comes first
Bachmann is pinning her 2012 hopes on a victory in Iowa, where she won a major straw poll in August and has one of her largest network of supporters in the nation.
Her public support there is higher than in any of the other early voting states. An American Research Group poll out this week has her at 15 percent, in a statistical three-way tie for second place with Perry and Ron Paul (Romney came in first).
But who is in the crowd of candidates is less important than how Bachmann runs her race, Iowa campaign spokesman Eric Woolson said.
“It doesn’t matter whose in the race,” he said. “Every campaign has to be focused on turning their people out.”
For Bachmann, that means tapping into the group of voters who handed her a victory in the Aug. 13 Iowa straw poll and, at the same time, expanding to the rural areas of the state she largely bypassed before then.
Woolson side-stepped questions about whether Bachmann would change the actual act of campaigning — her rock star-like persona became an issue for some Iowa voters after Perry entered the race, and many complained they’d like to get more face-to-face time with Bachmann.
“She’ll be doing a lot more of that,” Woolson said. “It’s retail politics at its best.”
The question now — for Bachmann and every other conservative in the race — is whether she can break through from a crowded field and win the caucuses when votes are finally cast in January. The Bachmann campaign insists she can, pointing primarily to her straw poll victory.
“You don’t turn people out for the straw poll unless you’re doing something right,” Woolson said.
But now, she’ll have to account for Perry, who didn’t announce his candidacy until the day of the straw poll. Between American Research Group’s July and September Iowa polls, Perry gained 14 percent, and Bachmann fell 6 percent.
Ride Iowa to South Carolina
The Bachmann campaign says they’ll compete in New Hampshire, but the state and its more moderate voters have never been at the forefront of Bachmann’s mind. So the campaign’s plan is to ride a big Iowa win to victory in South Carolina.
But there’s no guarantee South Carolinians will take marching orders from the Iowa or New Hampshire electorates.
“It’s not the kind of place that takes instruction from the first two states,” South Carolina Republican consultant Dave Woodard said. “It’s hard to say that the momentum [from Iowa] can be translated here.”
Woodard said it will be especially hard for Bachmann, who will have to contend with the state’s cultural preferences that will lend Perry a lot of support. Woodard said it’s easier for South Carolinians to identify with a southern governor with a military background than a Minnesota Congresswoman.
And Bachmann’s not polling well in South Carolina in the first place. The most recent poll from the state has Perry in the lead, with 31 percent; Bachmann is in fourth, with 4 percent.
Woodard said the electorate tends to support more moderate candidates, historically spurning conservatives who do well in Iowa (like Pat Robertson in 1988 or Mike Huckabee in 2008) in favor of moderates like George H. W. Bush or John McCain.
The state is also a very accurate indicator of who will eventually win the party nomination — for 30 years, the winner of the South Carolina primary has been the Republican presidential nominee.
“They think, rightly or wrongly, that they’re the real deal,” Woodard, also a Clemson University professor, said, “and everyone else is a phony.”
Florida’s decision today to move it’s primary to end of January will also force campaigns to move quickly when transitioning between Iowa or New Hampshire and South Carolina, since those three states will now need to move the dates of their contests to earlier in the month.
Campaigns will have less time to raise money and develop a ground strategy in South Carolina, which Saltsman said is a critical part of the process there. Saltsman said candidates really have to pin their hopes on winning two out of these three states if they want to be the party nominee. Every candidate, then, must focus squarely on South Carolina, whether they’re a moderate coming from New Hampshire or a conservative, like Bachmann, Perry and a large portion of the rest of the field, coming from Iowa.
“It’s hard to come back from losing two of the first three,” he said.
Devin Henry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.