On paper, Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann are nearly ideal Republican candidates for national office. Both are solidly conservative on almost all issues; both are evangelical Christians; both share blue collar upbringings; and both have populist, Washington-outsider messages. Election campaigns, however, don’t take place on paper.
In this past week’s national Gallup poll, Perry is stuck at 8 percent, Bachmann at 5. In Iowa, a socially conservative slice of the American heartland where both had been expected to do well (especially Bachmann, born in Iowa and living in neighboring Minnesota), Perry is hovering around 11 percent, Bachmann around nine (and even that might be overstated).
Bachmann and Perry very well could finished last and next-to-last, respectively, in Iowa on Tuesday, and be finished. Perry might have enough savings to limp to South Carolina and make a stand there — where he is polling even worse. He has registered 5 percent in the last two South Carolina polls, and that is more than twice his Real Clear Politics average in New Hampshire (2.3 percent). He’s at only 4 percent in Florida.
There are a lot of plausible explanations for why these two once-formidable candidates are on the cusp of elimination. The one I think works best is that Republican voters are placing a much higher premium on intellect than ideology.
I am not saying — nor do I think — that Perry and Bachmann are dumb. They are not. But another trait they share is an uncanny ability to come across as less informed, and at times less intelligent, than the other candidates in the race.
This is a primary driven almost entirely by the nationally televised debates. Millions of primary voters formed their first impressions of the candidates, or adjusted those first impressions, by watching one of the numerous debates or seeing the truncated coverage of them. Though both candidates had their moments, the debates left an overall impression that each was outclassed intellectually by the rest of the field.
Perry had his famous brain freezes, but even on his good nights he was woefully uninformed on the issues and had a tendency to shoot schoolboy zingers at opponents who had just given considered explanations of their policy positions. He would then square up and smile at the camera as if he had just flawlessly executed his lines during the taping of a chewing gum commercial.
Bachmann, much better informed than Perry, was stronger on policy. But she never seemed to possess the agility to get herself out of a tight spot or to expand beyond her comfort zone. And, fair or not, her delivery is damaging. Her slow, methodical march through talking points, often repeated, makes her appear dim, although her command of policy shows that she could ace the final if the debate questions were given in written form at the end of the year. She also has an unfortunate tendency to look into any camera with an open mouth and wide-open eyes, which is meaningless except that it happens to be an expression commonly associated with stupidity.
Off the debate stage, Bachmann and Perry only solidified the impressions they made in the debates, and in fact Bachmann lowered herself to Perry’s level through a series of gaffes. She famously placed the first battle of the Revolutionary War in New Hampshire, not Massachusetts, confused the Iowa towns that were home to John Wayne and John Wayne Gacy, irresponsibly spread false rumors about the safety of vaccines, and shamelessly spun bad campaign news with defenses that were obviously not credible.
In Iowa, Perry got the number of U.S. Supreme Court justices wrong and couldn’t name Sonia Sotomayor. In New Hampshire, he got the election, the date of the election, and the voting age wrong. And although one of his top advisors for years has been a Granite Stater, Perry thought New Hampshire had caucuses, not a primary.
Those might be counted minor flubs if uttered by any other candidate, but they were damaging to Perry and Bachmann because they supported the idea that these two were running a little shy of full wattage.
Compounding the problem were Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney. Both are highly intelligent, and the debates gave each a chance to demonstrate not only their policy knowledge, but their intellectual agility. They can dazzle with data and think on their feet. On stage, Bachmann and Perry always paled in comparison, even when they scored points on tests of political purity.
Gingrich and Romney stole the show at the debates, and with it the bulk of primary voters, while Ron Paul drew many in the smaller pool of voters in Iowa and New Hampshire who continued to value purity over most everything else.
Two thousand twelve was supposed to be the year the Tea Party picked a Republican presidential candidate. It was supposed to be this great, historic opportunity for conservatives to finally get a nominee without compromising. But the two candidates who would probably be judged the most pure of all could be days away from seeing their campaigns ended, and the two candidates who are seen as having strayed the most from the party line over the years are leading nationally.
Lots of factors combined to bring us to this point, but the simplest explanation is that Republicans are going for intellect — which brings with it a sense of competence — over ideology. Bush fatigue probably explains a lot of that, as does the desire to beat Obama, who is far less intellectual than he is made out to be, but who is nonetheless a sharp and nimble adversary. Republican voters seem to be seeking a nominee who is sharper than Obama and more competent than Bush, and judging both Bachmann and Perry as inadequate by both measures.