Bachmann's Decline: What Happened?

Perry's entrance into the race precipitated the congresswoman's decline.

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Those seeking evidence of how dramatically the political winds can shift need look no further than Michele Bachmann.

The Minnesota Representative began the race to the Iowa caucuses with a big victory, winning the Ames Straw Poll in August with nearly 29 percent of the vote. Last night, she came in 6th place in the Iowa caucus, with 5 percent of the vote. That means that the Iowa native who spent the second longest amount of time in the state of all candidates, with over 80 days and 230 events, only finished four percentage points ahead of former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, who spent 2 days in Iowa, according to the Des Moines Register.

What happened?

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One of the most obvious answers is that Texas Gov. Rick Perry happened. On the day that Bachmann won the Ames Straw Poll, the Texas governor stole her thunder by announcing his entrance into the the race. Bachmann's campaign never regained its momentum.

"What was really damaging to her was the entry of Perry into the race. Perry entered the race and was appealing to exactly the same voters," says Cary Covington, associate professor of political science at the University of Iowa. Because Perry boasted a more attractive resume, as the 10-year governor of a big state with a longer track record than Bachmann, who has represented the Twin Cities' northern suburbs for five years, voters readily flocked to him, says Covington.

"Once [voters] went elsewhere, it was unlikely that they were going to come back and say 'let's look at you again,'" Covington adds.

The mass defection from Bachmann to Perry was just the start of a long line of social conservative voters shifting from one candidate to another, in a series that included businessman Herman Cain, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum. Covington says that while Iowa libertarians latched onto Texas Rep. Ron Paul early on and establishment voters settled on former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the remaining social conservative and Tea Party voters were forced to choose between the remaining crop of candidates.

That the series of candidates backed by this bloc started with Bachmann, the founder of the House Tea Party caucus, and ended with Santorum, who campaigned heavily on his social conservative credentials, is a window into Iowa voters' priorities: "Iowans were voting on economic issues, not social issues. That's why Santorum was the last of that crop to be picked up," says Covington. Santorum became the final alternative and came within a hair of winning Iowa.

Voters discarded Bachmann not only because of Perry's entrance but also for missteps like her inaccurate statements about the HPV vaccine, then likewise deserted Perry for his gaffes and Gingrich in part for questions about his past, like his ethics violations as a member of Congress and infidelity in a prior marriage. Gingrich also fell victim to a barrage of negative ads.

Perry's entrance certainly hurt Bachmann, but her decline is also a function of what didn't happen—namely, fundraising and establishment support, says Tim Werner, assistant professor of political science at Grinnell College.

"She didn't have many people endorsing her in the way other candidates did. … And she just didn't have the money to get her message out in the same way that Mitt Romney did," says Werner.

Indeed, two of Iowa's prominent social conservatives—Rep. Steve King and Bob Vander Plaats, president and CEO of social conservative organization The Family Leader—never lent her their support. VanderPlaats endorsed Santorum, and King chose not to endorse any candidate.

And Bachmann also has a fraction of the fundraising of some of her opponents—as of the end of the third quarter, she had raised only $7.5 million, a figure dwarfed by Ron Paul's $12.6 million, Rick Perry's $17.1 million, and Mitt Romney's $32.2 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Republican Party.]