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August 22nd, 2011

Bachmann Needs to Excel at Retail Politics to be Successful in the Caucuses

It’s only been a little over a week since the results from Republican Party of Iowa’s straw poll in Ames were announced.  However, Ames now feels like it happened months ago.

Major political events like Texas Governor Rick Perry’s entrance to the race, President Obama’s Midwest bus tour, his run-in with the Iowa Tea Party, and the constant conversation about additional candidates getting into the Republican contest have only helped make Ames feel like a distant memory.  Still, what happened in Ames two Saturday’s ago is very important as it made a major impact in the Republican race for president.

Congresswoman Michele Bachmann validated her Iowa frontrunner status by earning a victory in Ames.  While she only defeated Texas Congressman Ron Paul by 152 votes, she came out on top and easily lapped the rest of field with the exception of Paul.  Her victory was important because it knocked her largest critic, former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, out of the race.  Bachmann’s Ames victory also proved that, despite what the news media says about her, she has wide appeal among Iowa caucus goers.

Despite her victory, Bachmann still has plenty of work to do in Iowa if she wants to win the Iowa caucuses.  Her straw poll victory was the result of favorable timing, a weak and incomplete Republican field, and a heavy reliance on country music acts as well as Bachmann’s star power.

In many respects, the Bachmann campaign did everything right in regards to the straw poll.  Their use of tele-town hall meetings to identify likely supporters worked well.  The campaign’s focus on mailing pro-Bachmann households ticket vouchers to the straw poll and for the Randy Travis concert in her tent was also savvy.  In essence, Bachmann’s campaign was successful because it cast the largest net, and the haul was just big enough for the win.

Moving forward, Bachmann’s efforts in the straw poll should allow her campaign to build out its grassroots organization.  Her campaign has identified thousands of Iowans who are supportive of her candidacy.  Now the campaign can follow up with them and begin to line up county chairs and precinct leaders.  If the straw poll is good for anything, it’s a great tool for campaigns to get organized in the state.

What complicates things for Bachmann is that the field of candidates she had to contend with during the lead up to the straw poll will be much different than what she will have to deal with between now and the caucuses.  Mitt Romney hasn’t been really engaged in any aspect of an Iowa campaign before the straw poll.  He basically stayed clear of those jockeying in advance of the straw poll.  That will no longer be the case now that the straw poll is history.

Rick Perry’s candidacy could have a major impact on Bachmann in Iowa.  She has an advantage because she identified people for the straw poll, but Perry will appeal to Bachmann supporter as well as former Pawlenty backers.  His advantage is that he appeals all segments of the caucus electorate, not just parts of it.  Rick Santorum is emerging as the natural home for many of Iowa’s social conservatives.  His straw poll performance was used almost like an introduction of sorts, and the reviews have been favorable.  Perry and Santorum both have the ability to take votes away from Bachmann.

Despite where all of the candidates stack up in comparison to Bachmann, it’s likely going to be the issues that decide the 2012 Iowa caucuses.  During her straw poll campaign, Bachmann used her opposition to the debt ceiling increase to campaign across the state.  Now that the compromise has been struck, Bachmann’s issue set seems to have narrowed.

She has been a leader in calling for the repeal of Obamacare, but Perry is telling people he will eliminate as much as he can through executive orders, and the rest of the field also talks tough on the matter. Obamacare will likely not be a separator issue except for a candidate like Romney, who is credited for passing the state law it is modeled after.

In many ways, Bachmann is at her best when she can campaign against what’s going on in Congress.  To be a credible presidential candidate, she can’t just oppose legislation, she’s going to have to cast a vision of where she wants to lead the nation.  That’s easier said than done, especially when you consider that Perry is the media’s new favorite thing to write about, Rick Santorum is going to come at you from the right, and Mitt Romney is going to run an effective media campaign.

To succeed, Bachmann is going to have to roll up her sleeves and organize the old fashioned way in Iowa.  Her media driven campaign worked for winning the straw poll, but she’s going to have steal a few pages our of Mike Huckabee’s 2008 playbook if she wants to win Iowa in 2012.

Huckabee went everywhere and was easily accessible.  Iowans not only got to know him on a personal level, but they got to know his family as well.  For Bachmann to be able to do that, she’s going to have to pop the constant bubble that surrounds her.  She also may want to dump the bus for now as well.  She has proven that she’s a formidable candidate, and she no longer needs to surround herself with all of those trappings that make her appear to already be the nominee.

Bachmann has all of the tools to do well in a state like Iowa, but she will need to embrace the type of campaign Iowans are used to seeing if she wants to win next February.  That means having conversations with people in small town diners and letting people ask you questions at town hall meetings.

The hardest thing for a campaign to realize after winning something like the Iowa Straw Poll is that they have not won anything yet.  Bachmann now needs to change her campaign from one that has lived off of hype and excitement to one that relies on building relationships and addressing a number of critical issues.

If she can make that transformation, she will be in good shape in February.


Photo by Dave Davidson,

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About the Author

Craig Robinson
Craig Robinson is the founder and editor-in-chief of, a political news and commentary site he launched in March of 2009. Robinson’s political analysis is respected across party lines, which has allowed him to build a good rapport with journalist across the country. Robinson has also been featured on Iowa Public Television’s Iowa Press, ABC’s This Week, and other local television and radio programs. Campaign’s & Elections Magazine recognized Robinson as one of the top influencers of the 2012 Iowa Caucuses. A 2013 Politico article sited Robinson and as the “premier example” of Republican operatives across the country starting up their own political news sites. His website has been repeatedly praised as the best political blog in Iowa by the Washington Post, and in January of 2015, Politico included him on the list of local reporters that matter in the early presidential states. Robinson got his first taste of Iowa politics in 1999 while serving as Steve Forbes’ southeast Iowa field coordinator where he was responsible for organizing 27 Iowa counties. In 2007, Robinson served as the Political Director of the Republican Party of Iowa where he was responsible for organizing the 2007 Iowa Straw Poll and the 2008 First-in-the-Nation Iowa Caucuses. Following the caucuses, he created his own political news and commentary site, Robinson is also the President of Global Intermediate, a national mail and political communications firm with offices in West Des Moines, Iowa, and Washington, D.C. Robinson utilizes his fundraising and communications background to service Global’s growing client roster with digital and print marketing. Robinson is a native of Goose Lake, Iowa, and a 1999 graduate of St. Ambrose University in Davenport, where he earned degrees in history and political science. Robinson lives in Ankeny, Iowa, with his wife, Amanda, and son, Luke. He is an active member of the Lutheran Church of Hope.

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