Michele Bachmann is Delusional--and She's Not Alone
Michele Bachmann is delusional. And she’s not alone. So are Rick Santorum, and Herman Cain, and Newt Gingrich, and just about everyone else who wants to be the Republican candidate for president. Maybe you have to be delusional to run for president.
In mid-August, Bachmann won the Iowa straw poll. You’d have thought from her giddy reaction to the win that she was already the Republican candidate. In the interviews following the straw poll, she was brimming with confidence, her face stretched wide in a toothy smile. Mind you, winning the Iowa straw poll is not a major accomplishment. She received 4,823 votes out of nearly 17,000 cast, which gave her 28 percent of the vote (Ron Paul got 27 percent). And the Iowa straw poll is frightfully awful at predicting the eventual winner. It’s been right only once the past five times. Nonetheless, Bachmann was strutting around afterwards as though winning the straw poll meant she had already been anointed the Chosen One.
Of course, everyone on the campaign trail exudes confidence. They have to say, “I’m going to win!” They couldn’t raise money if they showed doubt about the outcome. The problem is that most of them actually believe it.
Time for a reality check, beginning with a neat psychological trick called confirmation bias.
The Confirmation Bias Trap
One of the ways people delude themselves is to prefer information that confirms what they already believe, even if the information is irrelevant or wrong. Psychologists call this confirmation bias, and we all do it. We pay more attention to information that confirms our preconceptions, and we ignore or marginalize information that would negate our preconceptions. What sticks in our mind are facts that support our existing beliefs. Those facts give us pleasure because they confirm that we are right. We don’t like that other stuff—those messy facts that contradict what we believe—because they cause anxiety and doubt. So we selectively ignore them, downplay their importance, or push them conveniently under the rug where they won’t bother us anymore.
Bachmann and her team believe that she can win, and they reinforce their conviction by looking for evidence that appears to confirm it. Winning the Iowa straw poll is proof, in their minds, that she is the front runner—never mind other polls showing her well down in the pack. Winning the straw poll is BIG, Bachmann tells herself, and her staff cheerfully agrees. It shows, they tell her, that she can win the race, that more and more voters believe in her, that she has the momentum, that she can carry this all the way to the White House.
Confirmation bias will keep her self-confidence buoyant until the weight of contrary evidence begins to shake the foundations of her belief in herself and the certainty of her destiny. That will come when the flurry of later polls show how conclusively behind she is.
The Self-selecting Support Network Trap
Presidential candidates like Bachmann are also deluded by the loyalty and enthusiasm of the network of staffers and supporters surrounding them and by the crowds of people who attend their rallies and speeches, many of whom are vocally supportive and may be holding signs lauding the candidate or bashing the competition. A campaign starts small. At first, there are only the candidate’s family and friends, local politicos, and other early adopters who urge the candidate to run or support her decision. Their assurances become infectious, and before long more people are jumping on the bandwagon.
The earliest supporters are people who think like the candidate thinks. They agree with the candidate’s position on the issues—that’s why they are supporters. Contrarians in the candidate’s environment don’t jump on the bandwagon and are generally not vocal in their opposition, so all the candidate sees is a growing throng of supporters. Her confidence increases, along with her fame. Momentum builds as she gives speeches and the true believers in the crowd react enthusiastically to her punch lines and donate money to the cause. What doesn’t occur to her is that her early supporters—even if they number in the thousands or hundreds of thousands—are but a tiny microcosm of the totality of voters in the country and that these supporters have self-selected into her network because they like something about her or believe in her message.
But while many of the people at her political events are ardent supporters, many others are not devoted to her. They are there because they are curious, because hearing any candidate speak is exciting political theatre (and less boring than their daily routine), or they want to see what the buzz is about. It doesn’t mean they will vote for her, but the candidate is in her element. She is on stage, and what she sees is a mass of people, a supportive crowd, and the ever-present media. More sound byte opportunities. She basks in the glow.
The problem is that candidates like Bachmann project their microcosm of devoted supporters onto the populace as a whole—and this is delusional. She hasn’t yet encountered the legions of voters who don’t and won’t support her, have no interest in hearing her speak, think her positions are misguided if not idiotic, and will donate money to her opponents for the sole purpose of preventing her from being elected.
Early in the presidential campaign process, Bachmann and other candidates face relatively little scrutiny compared to what’s coming if pound the campaign trail long enough. For early press interviews, reporters may dredge up something controversial from Bachmann’s past, but these uncomfortable moments pass and are unlikely to raise serious issues in the public’s mind. Later, when the kid gloves come off, the heat will be blistering (look at what happened when John Edward’s infidelity came to light). In search of a story, reporters dig much, much deeper. Her political opponents and their handlers will go on the attack, and Internet sites will pop up that ridicule her, highlight her misstatements and contradictions, and make alarming predictions about his disastrous it will be if she’s elected.
At this early point in her fairy tale candidacy, Michele Bachman has no clue how brutal it’s going to become. She may, as she claims, have a titanium spine, but as the heat grows she’d better also have skin like an M-1 tank because her fiercest opponents have not yet organized themselves and begun to attack. When they do, it may not faze her, but their arguments will spread doubts about Bachmann in voters’ minds. Some of the people who supported her early on will change their minds, and her poll numbers will sink.
The Narcissism Trap
When you look in the mirror, what do you see? If you are like most people, you see the person you believe yourself to be, the person you want others to think you are. If you’re Michele Bachmann, you see a successful politician with a titanium spine, a powerful woman with strong ideas and the right solution to America’s problems, a winner who is running for president and is will be elected. You are thinking positively because that’s how you are built. You are determined, intelligent, and confident. You really like this person you see in the mirror.
Because you are so certain about your beliefs, you have a fantasy that most reasonable Americans will share your beliefs once they truly understand them. Well, some people (those awful liberals) may disagree with you, but they are misguided and don’t matter. You are certain that good Christian Americans will rally behind you when you ban pornography and same-sex marriages, close down the EPA and other wasteful government entities, drastically cut the bloated Federal budget, and bring back $2.00/gallon gasoline.
You love the person you see in the mirror. Who wouldn’t? And your narcissism becomes another delusional trap because you can’t behold that person in the mirror as she will be beheld by two hundred million voters. You can’t grasp why people might be alarmed at some of your statements (they made sense to you; those who don’t get it didn’t understand your good intentions). You can’t see yourself as others will see you and really have no clue about what they see when you are in front of them instead of a mirror.
Bachmann has said repeatedly that she’s in this campaign to win. And so are her fellow candidates. One of them—likely Romney or Perry—will sooner or later emerge from the pack and build enough support to become the Republican presidential candidate. The rest—the marginal candidates—will remain deluded about their prospects until far too late in the game. Some Republican will become the Chosen One to face Obama in 2012, but it’s not going to be Michele Bachmann. She doesn’t have a firm enough grasp on reality.
Meanwhile, Tim Pawlenty bowed out after a poor showing in the Iowa straw poll. He spent a reasonable amount of money in Iowa but failed to garner the support he felt he needed to continue with his campaign. He realistically assessed his chances and was decisive in ending his campaign.
It’s ironic, isn’t it? He’s the one Republican candidate who thoughtfully analyzed the situation, considered the pros and cons of continuing, and made a difficult decision in a timely manner. In being thoughtful and decisive, he showed the kind of leadership and executive skills we need in the White House. And he’s no longer running.