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5 Questions for David Chalian on 2012: Bachmann’s Poll Ratings, Third Parties and a ‘Boring’ Republican Fight?

NewsHour Political Editor David Chalian is fresh off a reporting trip to Iowa for the GOP’s Ames straw poll.

Last week, we invited you to ask your questions about the 2012 election season and the shape of the GOP field. We picked five of your questions for Chalian. Read on for his answers:

Question #1: Why [are] Bachman’s poll ratings so high at the same time national pundits do not believe she has even a slim chance at winning the presidency or even her party’s nomination? What is the disconnect?

DAVID CHALIAN: This is a really fantastic question and a smart observation about the disconnect. I think there are a couple of things at play here.

First of all, allow me to quote from former presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty: If national polls were predictive of the outcome this far out, Rudy Giuliani or Hillary Clinton would be sitting in the Oval Office. So, it is her polling at the top of the field in first-in-the-nation Iowa that gives her candidacy legitimacy in the eyes of many observers. Yet, you are right to note that most political pundits don’t seem to think she has a real shot at the nomination.

  • Republican primary voters see a potentially beatable President Obama and they are eager to put forth a nominee who has the best chance at beating Mr. Obama. Most polls — as a snapshot in time right now, not as predictors for next November — show the president easily beating Michele Bachmann in a head to head match-up. If those numbers don’t improve and Rick Perry or Mitt Romney appear more competitive with the president in the months ahead that could complicate Bachmann’s argument to voters.
  • As her straw poll victory demonstrated this weekend, Bachmann is drawing on considerable support from social conservatives and evangelical Christians in a similar fashion to Mike Huckabee’s support network four years ago. That voting coalition may be able to deliver a victory for Bachmann in the Iowa caucuses early next year, but the primary electorate in New Hampshire, Florida, South Carolina, and Nevada are potentially substantially different from Iowa, perhaps complicating Bachmann’s ability to produce a second early-state victory and catapulting her to the nomination.

There is little doubt that Bachmann has proven herself a serious contender and frontrunner in Iowa, but with Perry threatening to play for a slice of her social conservative base she will no longer have a corner on that market.

Her message discipline as a candidate, refusing to allow journalists or hecklers or questioners at town halls to take her off course, has, for me, been one of the most surprising developments of the 2012 nominating race thus far.

Question #2: What are the chances of a major independent candidate being on the ballot, and how well do you think they would do?

DAVID CHALIAN: I’m very skeptical of a major independent candidate on the ballot. Many pollsters and political professionals have taken a look at the combination of more Americans identifying themselves as independent and the anger/frustration is on clear display toward elected leaders in Washington and suggest that this cycle is ripe for a successful independent/third-party candidacy.

The most recent ABC News/Washington Post poll has party identification broken down thusly: 32 percent Democrat, 25 percent Republican, 37 percent independent.

There are groups working to find a path around the two major party system that has dominated most of our country’s history. Americans Elect is one such group seeking to get on the ballot in all 50 states with a candidate nominated by supporters online.

However, without a strong candidate who can capture the imagination of the American people and generate dominant media coverage as well as $1 billion or so to keep up with the two major parties, it is hard for me to see from where this independent bid emerges.

Looking across the national political landscape right now, I don’t see someone who has all of those components to rocket into serious contention, but I’m always willing to be surprised.

Jon_HuntsmanQuestion #3: Jon Huntsman is the only candidate that actually makes me (as a staunch Democrat) a little nervous, but he appears to be gaining no traction whatsoever. Is he too moderate for today’s Republicans? What is the mood at his events? Who comes to them?

DAVID CHALIAN: The simple answer to your first question may be “yes.” Governor Huntsman and his campaign team hate the “moderate” label because of how toxic it can be with the Republican nominating electorate, but if you listened to his impassioned defense of his support for gay civil unions at last week’s debate in Iowa, you heard a man who is out of sync with the base of his party, not just on that issue, but in tone and temperament.

The Republican Party nominating electorate wants a fighter who is going to take it directly to President Obama. Jon Huntsman has displayed very little appetite for that.

He likes to say he is competing in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida. But it is really all about New Hampshire for Huntsman. He has to prove to be a formidable challenger to Romney there, and whoever comes rocketing out on top of the Iowa caucuses. If he can’t catch fire there, where independents can vote in the Republican primary, it’s hard to imagine him hanging around much longer beyond that.

I have not yet attended a Huntsman campaign event so I can’t comment on the makeup of his crowds.

Question #4: Is this going to be a long and boring political circus or a championship game of who beats the dead horses named, “Balancing the Budget and American Debt” better?

DAVID CHALIAN: I’ll leave it to you to decide if it is boring or not. It may, indeed, be a long nomination season. Now that Republicans have changed their nominating rules to allow for proportional allocation of delegates in the early states instead of a winner-take-all system, it is quite possible that we can see this Republican battle lasting into the spring, if there is a split decision among the early states.

For instance, if Bachmann wins Iowa, Romney wins New Hampshire and Perry wins South Carolina, it is easy to imagine this contest playing out over a matter of months.

(Of course, the White House would likely see a prolonged Republican nomination battle as a good way to avoid having the president get into a one on one fight too early, but the Obama campaign is stocked with the same operatives who argued the long nomination battle with Clinton in 2008 made Mr. Obama a better candidate and worked to energize Democratic voters in ways that proved very helpful to them in November.)

And to your point about the budget and the debt, I think barring any terrorist attack or some other unforeseen external event, it is safe to say that the economy and jobs will be the driving issues in this race with federal spending, deficits, and a debt a significant part of that debate.

Question #5: Ron Paul appears to continue to (slowly, inexorably) gain strength. Has his campaign given any indication that it might consider a third-party run when he ultimately fails to get the Republican nomination?

DAVID CHALIAN: You can see Ron Paul was asked directly about this on “Fox Business” last month (it comes about 1:35 into the clip). He refuses to rule it out entirely but explains the complexity and hurdles involved in mounting such a third-party campaign.

“I have not looked into that because I haven’t been thinking along those lines,” Paul said.

Having once been a Libertarian Party candidate for president, Paul knows all too well the frustration experienced by candidates not from one of the two major parties in the current structure of American presidential politics.

For more of our politics coverage, see our politics page.

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