Five Good Questions with Christian Heinze and Jonathan Tobin

As covered earlier on this site, the Ames Straw Poll took place this weekend. Beyond just the straw poll vote though, Rick Perry jumped into the Republican nominating contest, reorienting the entire primary landscape and making it a very busy weekend for the GOP. To get more information about the implications of the weekend and the straw poll’s results, Chip talked to Christian Heinze of the Hill and Jonathan Tobin of Commentary Magazine.

Below is an edited transcript of the two interviews

Chip Lebovitz: Michele Bachmann won the Ames Straw Poll with over 6,000 votes. How significant is her victory?

Christian Heinze: It’s significant, but I think it’s going to make things better for her and more difficult for her. It’s going to make it tough to the extent that she’s now considered the frontrunner in Iowa, and she has to win Iowa. Now all the pressure sits to her. Before the pressure was on Tim Pawlenty because everyone said he’s got to win the Iowa straw poll, but now things shift to her so she’s going to be under the gun more.

Jonathan Tobin: Well, you know, it’s easy to dismiss it. It’s a straw poll. It’s not an actual caucus or primary. It’s not a big sample. It’s more a test of organizational ability that voter appeal. You know, all this is all true, but she still won it. All the other candidates would have like to have won it. Romney and Perry stayed out of it because they weren’t sure they could win it. So you have to give her credit. If she hadn’t won it, that would have been a disaster for her. If Ron Paul had won it, not only would it have been a disaster for her, it would have been a disaster for the entire Republican Party, because that would diminish the credibility of the whole exercise. You have to give her credit. Its something everyone else wanted; she got it. It gives her step up. There is a top tier. There is no alternative to Bachman, Perry, or Romney. One of those three will be the Republican nominee. She’s part of the trio.

Chip Lebovitz: Most people believe that both of the top two finishers at Ames, Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul have little shot at winning the nomination. Despite a very high turnout, have these results damaged the straw poll’s predicative value and its overall importance to the GOP?

Christian Heinze: In one sense it damages the predictive power because you’re right, Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul aren’t likely to win. But at the same time, I think (the straw poll) proved it can be very effective as a means of winnowing candidates out. Tim Pawlenty was considered a top tier candidate and he would still be in the race today if it weren’t for the straw poll. I think it lost some of its predictive power but as far as a winnowing process it’s still a pretty good deal.

Jonathan Tobin: I think it is understandable that some people want to put Bachmann in the same category of Paul, but it’s wrong. Bachmann has much broader appeal within the Republican Party. Can she be elected President? The odds are against that. She is someone with powerful appeal to Christian conservative and Tea Partyers. To dismiss her as a marginal candidate – which is what everybody did back in the spring when she declared – is a mistake not just because it diminishes the influence of those two very powerful demographic slices of the Republican Party, but it also doesn’t take into account that she is a real political talent. You can talk all you want about the gaffes that she makes; you can say that her position on the debt ceiling was unrealistic, and her contingent that S&P downgrade of America’s credit indicates her position on “no raise the debt ceiling at all” is certainly engaging in fantasies. But she is someone who really connects with the grassroots of the Republican Party. She comes across really well; people like her, at least a lot Republicans really like her. If Perry and Romney think she can’t compete, they’re making a mistake. She has the ability to do far better, and frankly, do better than Huckabee did. She has tremendous potential to wreak havoc in the Republican Party as this goes forward. We have five months until the caucuses. We’ll have to see. She has less of chance that Perry and Romney. I’ll concede that. Perry and Romney are the frontrunners.

Chip Lebovitz: How important is it that Rick Perry received more write in votes than Mitt Romney despite announcing his candidacy on the same day as the straw poll? Should Romney see this as an ominous sign?

Christian Heinze: Absolutely. If you remember Romeny didn’t participate in the straw poll, but he was on the ballot. Rick Perry wasn’t even on the ballot; so it wasn’t a case of Perry’s write-in votes versus Romeny’s. It was a case of Perry beating him despite not being on the ballot. Rick Perry’s in Iowa until Tuesday and according to media reports, he did a fantastic job on the stump last night. People are already starting to say that if Perry picks up steam in Iowa, Romney’s going to have to compete there because he just can’t afford for Perry to have a full head of steam coming into New Hampshire.

Jonathan Tobin: I don’t know. There are a lot of ominous signs for Romney but I don’t know if that is necessarily one of them. Neither of them really tried, rightly, because neither of them would have won. Had one of them tried and not won that would have been disastrous, as with Tim Pawlenty. Romney’s problems are much broader than that. He enters this race with what was up until a few months ago the overriding issue for Republicans, Obamacare, and Romney has a position and a record on it that is from the point of view of conservative Republicans indefensible. If that’s the big issue, he can’t win. If Romney still has a chance, it’s because the economy has gotten so bad that we’re not really talking much about Obamacare anymore. The federal court ruling on Friday hopped it up a little bit, but even then it didn’t get much play. Romney has a chance, and I have to also say that Romney comes across a lot better than he did four years ago on the campaign trail, even in the course of making his gaffe about corporations being people. He’s more comfortable in this roll. The Journal just killed him this morning – he has no belief in principles except for his own technocratic expertise. Ouch! That’s a big problem for a party in which conservatives and people who believe in conservative ideology play such an important roll. It’s very tough for him to overcome that, and Perry is a real threat to him. If we’re looking for the mainstream alterative to the Tea Party Revolution, it’s either Perry or Romney versus Bachmann. In that case, Perry has a very strong case to make and he comes across very well. Whether he’s too Texas or too religious, those are problems for him in terms of a broad general election.

Chip Lebovitz: If you’re president Obama, you look at these straw poll results and think what?

Christian Heinze: If you’re the president? I think you hope that Michele Bachmann gets nominated. I mean he knows what Iowa is like; Iowa propelled him (in 2008). I think Iowa probably is more reflective of a final Democratic winner than it would be of a Republican winner. If you look at whom the DNC is sending out hit press releases on, they’re hardly paying any attention to Michele Bachman right now. They are not paying any attention whatsoever to Ron Paul. They are paying by far the most attention to Romney or Perry.

Jonathan Tobin: The president is looking at his own polls. Gallup came out saying President Obama has a record low, and someone wrote on our site (Commentary Magazine) this morning that no president since Truman has been reelected with a rating that low this late into their first term. He’s looking at his own numbers, which are awful. As a President, you have a lot of natural advantages, and Barack Obama has more advantages than most, because of his status as the first African American President. He’s always going to be that. The press treats him and his family – much as he’s been criticized – with the Camelot treatment. No president has received that since John Kennedy. Reelection wise on how well the country is doing: the country is doing very poorly. If the economy is doing this poorly a year from now, he has no chance. Is the country going to be in such bad shape that someone like Michelle Bachmann might beat him? He can wander around the country saying what he wants, and urge the Congress to pass stray bills he hasn’t even submitted yet, as he did last week, but that’s all atmospherics. When it comes to the president, it’s about what’s going on – state of the economy, unemployment, lack of growth, and a double dip recession. That’s his problem. Nothing else counts for him.

Chip Lebovitz: What do you think was the most underreported aspect of this year’s straw poll?

Christian Heinze: I think the fact that Michele Bachmann did so well even though she organized so late in the game. Pawlenty’s been organizing for the straw poll for a long time and the straw poll is a lot about organization. Ron Paul has been organizing for (the straw poll) for a long time. Michele Bachmann just got into the race a couple of months ago, and she really didn’t pick up fire until maybe about 50 days ago. For her to come in with little organization and win the straw poll shows that passion counts for more than people though in this poll.

Jonathan Tobin: Was anything missed? It was one of those events where the operative phrase is “over reported.” In fact we’re still getting news. I saw a piece in Politico this morning reporting on how Bachmann and Perry worked the tables at some even in Waterloo, Iowa. I think we’re all over this. You know it’s a manufactured event. It’s a fundraiser for the Iowa GOP. The Iowa Straw Poll is a function of the media; we’re desperate to report on something. We’re very much into the horse race, and Iowa is the only thing we have that approximates something that we can actually get our hands around. We probably report it too much. We put too much significance to it. It’s there. The candidates validate it with their presence. We have to talk about it. It’s real. Ames has significance because we talk about it. It’s like the debate. The New Hampshire debate is six months before, what does it matter? We had some very dramatic moments – Tim Pawlenty basically committed political suicide on the stage that night. That was confirmed over the weekend. Pawlenty did a Kamikaze raid on Bachmann, and killed himself then also. He blew up. Ames is the moment when minor candidates start to drift off the races, which is fascinating. How much attention should we pay to them? As a journalist, I’d like to write about how Gingrich or Santorum did, but you only have so much space and so much time and in the end they don’t matter. I would have written more about how terrible Huntsman came across in that debate, but in the end, I have more important things to write about.

Want to read more by Christian Heinze or Jonathan Tobin?

Christian Heinze writes both the GOP12 blog and on other aspects of the 2012 presidential election for the Hill.

Jonathan Tobin is the senior online editor of Commentary Magazine and writes for the Commentary Magazine blog, Contentions.

We’d like to thank both Christian Heinze and Jonathan Tobin for talking to us.

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