The Real Clear Politics average still has Romney on top in Iowa, if only barely, but a new poll by The Iowa Republican has Bachmann in the lead for the first time, 25 to 21 over Romney, with Pawlenty and Cain well back at 9.
To some of us, this isn't at all surprising. I have long thought that Bachmann has impressive political skills (whatever her right-wing craziness) and could do well in this race, particularly in the absence of another viable candidate on the right. And she's doing well generally in a one-on-one race against Romney, a race without, say, a Perry or a Palin to drain some of her conservative support.
Romney is still the frontrunner and perhaps the favorite. He has a solid ground campaign across the country, will win New Hampshire, has the support of much of the establishment (and monied interests that back the GOP), and is a solid if uninspiring candidate, particularly with the economy at the center of the debate.
But Bachmann could easily win Iowa, surprise with a strong showing in New Hampshire, and then, should she be more or less alone on the right, cruise into South Carolina with the wind at her back.
The concerns for Romney are many, but one of them may be that he has a fairly low ceiling. He has about one-quarter support of Republicans nationally right now, but what if his ceiling isn't all that much higher than that? What if the opposition to Romney is so strong, mainly from the grassroots (Tea Party, "social conservatives," etc.), that he just can't get over the hump in a one-on-one race against a more bona fide conservative like Bachmann? And it's possible that it will eventually turn into just that, if Pawlenty fails to emerge as a compromise candidate and if the conservative vote isn't divided (that is, if Perry and Palin don't run and if the conservatives in the race now, namely Gingrich and Santorum, continue to lag way behind with little support). (I'm counting Huntsman out altogether, though in my opinion he's by far the strongest of the bunch.)
Indeed, as Jon Chait noted the other day, Bachmann is a bit like Obama in 2007:
Obama trailed badly in the national polls throughout 2007. But he had high favorability and seemed to do well among those voters most attuned to the campaign, which suggested that as elections neared and voters paid more attention, he had the potential to win over voters who were not paying attention months and months before any vote.
And, indeed, Bachmann's "lead expands when the sample is confined to voters paying a lot of attention." Which is to say, Republicans like her more the more they get to know her, with her support coming to a great extent from those who are most engaged in the process -- the people, that is, who decide primaries, the hardcore grassroots.
Will this continue? Maybe not. Maybe Bachmann has her own ceiling. Maybe another big-name conservative will get in the race. Maybe Romney would beat her in a one-on-one race. But what's evident, it seems to me, is that Bachmann is for real.
Cross-posted from The Reaction