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June 3rd, 2013

Bachmann Was Bad for the Future of the Straw Poll, Not the Caucuses

Michele Bachmann’s legal and ethical problems are not an indictment of the caucus process as some in the media suggest.  While the fallout from Bachmann’s presidential campaign makes it difficult for the scars from the 2012 caucuses to properly heal, her problems are of her own making and really have nothing to do with the Iowa Caucuses aside from the fact that she ran for president.

As has been the case in every contested Republican presidential election, the 2012 Iowa Caucuses continued to fulfill their role in identifying the serious and strong candidates, while also identifying the weaker candidates.  The media continues to portray Bachmann as if she was a serious threat to win the Republican nomination, when in fact she wasn’t a serious contender.

Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain, and Rick Perry all at some point in the 2012 presidential race led in national primary polls, Michele Bachmann on the other hand did not.  Bachmann did lead in four Iowa polls, but it should come as no surprise that her lead in the Iowa polls spanned just over a month from late June to early August during the lead up to the Iowa Straw Poll.

That’s not to say that Bachmann didn’t have moments when she looked to be a formidable candidate that could have made a serious run for the Republican nomination.

Who could forget Bachmann’s first presidential debate performance.  She shined in the national spotlight.  Time Magazine said that Bachman gave an “electrifying performance” in the New Hampshire debate.  The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza declared Bachmann a big winner, writing of that debate, “Bachmann dominated the stage with quotable lines galore and an audience hanging on her every word.”

Yes, there was a short time between June and Mid-August when Michele Bachmann seemed to be a formidable presidential candidate, but let’s be honest.  It wasn’t just some podunk Iowans who fell for her.  So did our friends in the national media.

The highpoint of Bachmann’s presidential campaign happened at about 4 p.m. on Saturday, August 13.  Bachmann won the Straw Poll with 28.6 percent of the vote, narrowly beating out Texas Congressman Ron Paul by just 152 votes.  Her win forced fellow Minnesotan Tim Pawlenty to drop out of the race.  As Bachmann was celebrating her victory in Ames, most people knew that the race was going to change moving forward.

Bachmann’s straw poll win was impressive, but looking back, it was obviously overhyped by the media.  Bachmann’s win over Pawlenty wasn’t all that impressive. The former Minnesota Governor finished in third place, and nobody thought he had a chance to win in Ames that day.  Even Pawlenty himself knew that the Straw Poll was the end of the road for his presidential campaign.  Why else do you think he was a no-show for the photo-op with the rest of candidate on the Straw Poll stage.

Bachmann’s only real competition in Ames was Ron Paul since Mitt Romney wasn’t participating and Rick Perry had just entered the race that day in South Carolina.  Eventual caucus winner Rick Santorum was just trying to hang on for dear life at the event.  A fifth or worse finish would have been disastrous, but he somehow stayed alive.  Newt Gingrich was down and out at the time. He didn’t have a tent or even much of a staff in mid-August.  Herman Cain’s campaign was a mess, and he suddenly decided not to campaign much in Iowa in advance of the Straw Poll.

Besides Ron Paul, Bachmann was the only legitimate candidate participating in the Straw Poll, and one only needed to look at each candidate’s operation that day to realize that.  Her campaign spent a ton of money on the Straw Poll.  She spent money on direct mail, telemarketing, state fair food, and big time country music entertainment.

While Bachmann won the Iowa Straw Poll fair and square, that event is only a test for what really matters – the caucuses themselves.  It didn’t take long for Bachmann to falter.  The day after her victory in Ames, she was attended a Black Hawk County GOP fundraiser along with Perry and Santorum.  The audience was energized by Perry’s first appearance in Iowa.  While he and Santorum worked the room, Bachmann held up in her tour bus and wouldn’t enter the facility until Perry was off the premises.

It was the first of a long string of missteps for the Bachmann campaign.  It seemed as if she plummeted back to earth as quickly as she had risen to national prominence.  The months that followed saw caucus voters get excited about other candidates.  First it was Perry, then Cain.  By November, voters were intrigued with Gingrich, but at the end, it was Santorum who surged at the right time.

Bachmann’s Straw Poll victory is bad for the future of Straw Poll, not the Iowa Caucuses.  The future of the Iowa Straw Poll is in doubt, but Bachmann’s dramatic fall from grace may very well be one of the final nails in its coffin.  In previous cycles, the first and second place finishers of the Straw Poll were also placed first and second in the caucuses.  In 2012, Santorum finished fourth in Ames, and Romney didn’t even participate.

Bachmann approached the Straw Poll like she was cramming for a test.  She passed it with flying colors, but in the process, didn’t retain the subject matter she was supposed to learn.  Throughout the fall, Iowa caucus goers realized she wasn’t the candidate they thought she was when she was riding high and excitement surrounded her campaign.

The 2012 Iowa Caucuses had their problems, but Republican caucus goers performed exceptionally well.  In time, they rallied around the hard-working, straight-talking Santorum.  Even though Mitt Romney didn’t aggressively campaign in Iowa until just a few weeks before the caucuses, Iowa voters recognized that he was a legitimate candidate.

Santorum and Romney went on to win every other state in the nominating fight except for only two, which Gingrich carried.  Some say that Bachmann was a “colorful distraction,” but Iowa voters were not distracted at all by what happened at the Straw Poll.  In fact, as the field of candidates and the dynamics of the presidential primary changed, Iowa caucus goers adapted, and in the end, they looked pretty smart.

The Bachmann saga is an example of how well the caucus process works, not how it failed.  The Straw Poll is an entirely different story, and if that event ceases to exist, Bachmann will go down in history as the one who made the event irrelevant, whether that designation is warranted or not.

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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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