Bachmann Blowing Off NH?
This column orginally ran in the New Hampshire Union Leader on August 26, 2011:
Michele Bachmann’s victory in the Iowa straw poll called for a triumphant victory lap. Go to the other early states, attract big crowds, sign up new supporters, generate lots of free media coverage.
It’s been two weeks, and Bachmann has kept New Hampshire voters waiting. She cancelled a visit to Windham scheduled to take place the day after the straw poll. An announced stop in Wolfeboro also was cancelled. And voters are going to wait some more: Bachmann has not even scheduled her next visit to the first-in-the-nation primary state. She hasn’t been in New Hampshire since June.
But Bachmann has been to South Carolina, campaigning there three days last week.
What kind of campaign strategy is this? One that doesn’t think doing well in New Hampshire is important to its overall success. Or one that has concluded Bachmann is unlikely to do well here.
Once New Hampshire voters perceive that a candidate isn’t competing to win the primary, it becomes that much harder to earn support. Local activists are reluctant to sign up with a campaign that seems half-committed. Just ask Rudy Giuliani or Fred Thompson.
Bachmann is already paying a price for her lack of presence here. Not one of the more than 300 Republican state legislators has publicly endorsed Bachmann. For comparison, Ron Paul has 10 state reps and a senator on board. Mitt Romney’s supporters include three state senators.
Bachmann has spent so little time in New Hampshire, she’s one of the few candidates yet to appear at campaign trail staples like Politics & Eggs or WMUR’s “Conversations with the Candidates” series. She has held no town hall meetings. Hers is one of the last campaigns without an office.
Not that voters wouldn’t like to meet Bachmann. Interest was strong enough for the Windham event that local Republicans moved the venue and rented a bigger hall. But a week out, Bachmann cancelled on them. The stated reason was the condition of Bachmann’s mother’s health.
A Windham organizer wanted to give the Bachmann campaign the benefit of the doubt. “Maybe they just committed prematurely,” the person said, not buying the pretext about Bachmann’s mom. “If it’s a scheduling issue, just say so,” the Windham voter said.
“It’s just one of those things,” Bachmann state campaign Chairman Jeff Chidester of Rochester explained, struggling to come up with an excuse for why Bachmann hasn’t been here. The campaign is just gearing up. The schedule is in constant flux. Voters are on vacation during the summer. (So Rick Perry was wasting his time here?) It’s a busy time for members of the state Legislature (which hasn’t been in session for a couple of months). The debt-ceiling debate kept her pinned down in Washington, (but didn’t prevent Bachmann from campaigning in Iowa during the debt debate).
It’ll all change soon, promises Chidester, who leads a paid staff of four. Director of Operations Mattheau LeDuc and field director for the northern half of the state, Tom Lukacz, are both veterans of state GOP Chairman Jack Kimball’s gubernatorial campaign. Caroline Gilger ran the state party’s Seacoast office last fall and covers the southern half. There are state legislators ready to endorse, according to Chidester. They are looking at office space to rent as a campaign headquarters.
Is it fair to say Bachmann’s behind? No, Chidester insists, perhaps concealing some frustration that the national campaign is putting so little emphasis on New Hampshire.
One person who wants Bachmann to campaign in New Hampshire is Mitt Romney. There aren’t a lot of voters wondering, “Am I with Bachmann, or am I with Romney?” The mainstream conservative Romney and the populist hardliner Bachmann aren’t competing over the same voters. Bachmann could prevent votes from going to Perry or another Romney rival.
Romney’s seen a lackluster New Hampshire effort by another candidate hurt him before. In 2008, disappointed would-be Giuliani voters migrated to McCain in the closing weeks of the primary, and may have provided McCain his margin of victory.
Candidates demonstrate what they think is important by how they use their time. Iowa and South Carolina are important to Bachmann. New Hampshire, not so much.
Fergus Cullen, a freelance columnist, can be reached at email@example.com.