Until Saturday, Rep. Michele Bachmann’s edge over the GOP field hinged on her unique positioning. With Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty as her top rivals, Bachmann filled an important niche: She was the charismatic tea party fighter who could conceivably win the nomination.
Occupying that territory served her well. But with conservative tea party favorite Texas Governor Rick Perry entering the race on Saturday (ironically on the same day Bachmann won the Ames straw poll), the contrasts that helped propel her to victory have been muddied — and possibly neutralized. Voters will now have to find new criteria for making up their minds.
This is very bad news for Bachmann.
As the longest serving governor in America today, Perry has more experience and accomplishments than Bachmann (who has no executive experience and few legislative accomplishments). But the dominant contrast may ultimately be more superficial than experience (for which today’s voters seem to hold in little regard).
Instead, it might just come down to their differing personalities: Perry is affable and friendly; Bachmann acts like a guarded celebrity.
If “likeability” seems like the kind of thing that ought to win you a high school election or popularity contest, that’s because it is.
Consider this high school analogy:
Mitt Romney is the kid in the front row who constantly raises his hand. Michele Bachmann is the popular girl who knows she’s better than you. And Rick Perry is the laid-back football player (in actuality, Perry was an “Aggie Yell Leader” — but this is about perception) who sits in the back of the class. He’s popular with the cool kids, yet still treats the outcasts with a degree of respect.
Everybody likes that guy, and in politics, likeability matters.
This may all seem laughable, but deep down this is probably pretty close to the way many of us categorize people. Most voters are more likely to say “I like that guy” than, “I disagree with his trade policy.”
Perry, of course, will have to be careful how he plays this. Who can forget Barack Obama’s comment during a Democratic debate that Hillary Clinton is “likeable enough.” The one thing that could make Perry less likeable would be for him to attack Bachmann directly — which is why I think he should ignore her and focus on Romney and Obama.
In pandering to straw poll voters, Bachmann famously said, “Everything I needed to know, I learned in Iowa.”
When it comes to sizing up politicians, I’ve found a different maxim has served me well: Everything I needed to know about politicians … I learned in high school.