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Unpopularity Serves Michele Bachmann

Popularity is nice, but unpopularity can be useful as well. Just ask Michele Bachmann. Like Sarah Palin, the Minnesota congresswoman and Republican Presidential candidate has turned enraging large numbers of people—including some in her own party—into an exquisite art form. She opposed raising the debt ceiling to the very end. Her views on gay people are positively rabid. And she doesn’t mind repeating things that are known not to be true, accusing President Barack Obama of spending $200 million a day on a visit to India.

The madder Bachmann’s enemies get, the more her supporters love her. As August began, she was leading in the polls in Iowa. “No. 1, she’s colorful. And she’s angry,” says Fred Davis, a Republican media strategist. “A lot of the populace, especially on the far right side of the Republican Party, are very angry right now, and they like someone who stands out and pounds the podium.” Her breakout moment came during the early Republican debate on June 13, when she smiled and stuck to her Tea Party talking points while the men around her competed for the title of most-boring-white-guy (plus Herman Cain).

What’s worse than having people hate you, at least in politics, is being so bland that no one has a clue who you are. “If Jon Huntsman’s people came to me,” says Frank Newport, editor-in-chief of the Gallup Poll, “I’d say, ‘Your problem is your man doesn’t generate any reaction either way.’ ”

Besides, controversy is relative. “What’s considered polarizing in New York City might be mainstream in Dallas,” says Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. “Barack Obama is a polarizing figure in a lot of places.”

This is something that Bachmann is already learning. While she’s been storming diners and churches in Iowa and performing strongly there, in other areas, such as Florida, her showing has been dismal: An August Quinnipiac poll put her sixth out of 11 in the important swing state, at 6 percent.

Coy is Bloomberg Businessweek's economics editor. His Twitter handle is @petercoy.

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