After Michele Bachmann officially announced her candidacy yesterday, CNN asked me to assess her chances of winning the nomination. My response is now featured at their site, which discusses the historical obstacles facing House members who make presidential nomination bids. Not one sitting Congressman has ever won a party’s nomination since the beginning of the primary era in 1912, but Bachmann might be an exception:
Anything is impossible until someone does it. The problem for House candidates is that they lack solid constituencies. Where senators and governors win statewide elections and can lay claim to fairly broad constituencies, any House member represents only around 800,000 people at most. …
Bachmann has an answer for that in the Tea Party. She began devoting time and attention to the Tea Party when it began, and she is now one of its leading lights. That gives Bachmann a claim to a national constituency that most candidates coming out of the House cannot match.
At the moment, she doesn’t have any Tea Party competition for the nomination, which means that she can harness the group’s enthusiasm and organizing efforts. That would change if Sarah Palin enters the race, and could also change if Texas Gov. Rick Perry throws his hat in the ring, although to a lesser degree. If not, Bachmann would have the kind of grass-roots support that could make the difference in a race without a breakaway frontrunner — especially in Iowa’s opening caucuses, where organization plays a critical role in success.
My friend Eric Ostermeier did some intriguing historical research on the topic of House members and presidential bids. Since Rep. Champ Clark managed to wangle a first-ballot lead in the 1912 Democratic convention, more than thirty House members have launched official bids for a presidential nomination. Twenty-one of those came after 1972. While the efforts were entirely unsuccessful, the candidates themselves usually won their re-election bids if they chose to run (with only Bob Dornan being the exception). That bodes well for Bachmann if her bid follows the usual historical trajectory, although Bachmann has a fairly safe district anyway.
The differences between Bachmann and the earlier candidates go beyond the Tea Party, although they’re linked to it. Bachmann has high name recognition, in part because of the Tea Party, but also in part because she regularly jousts with opponents on cable-TV shows. Bachmann is also a prodigious fundraiser. In fact, she has so much money in her coffers after the 2010 cycle (in which she barely broke a sweat in winning her re-election over Taryl Clark) that Minnesotans figured she was aiming for a Senate run against Amy Klobuchar before Bachmann began showing an interest in a presidential run.