In late November, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee sat down with Chip Saltsman, his campaign manager, and Robert Wickers, his media adviser, to confront a two-part problem. The first part of the problem was Christmas. With the new, condensed primary schedule, what should normally be the most intense period of campaigning before the Iowa caucuses would now come at Christmastime. What kind of political ads — if any — would be effective? The second part of the problem was Huckabee’s success. He was beginning to rise in the polls and knew he would draw attack ads, mostly from Mitt Romney. How should he respond?
“We started talking about how the whole Christmas season is changing the deal for all the presidential campaigns,” Saltsman told me last night. “I said Santa Claus was the great equalizer.” By that, Saltsman meant that the deluge of Christmas advertising, Christmas parties, and Christmas shopping, along with the general holiday rush, would dilute and reduce the effectiveness of ads put out by the far better-financed Romney campaign; there would just be too much noise for a politician to break through. “I said we’ve got to think of a different way to talk about the governor during Christmas than just the usual campaign ads,” Saltsman recalled.
And if they figured out a different way, how would it work in the face of “contrast” commercials from Romney? “How do you run an attack before Christmas?” Saltsman wondered. “And how do you respond to one?”
The men decided that the best way was to go positive — and seasonal. Saltsman suggested that Huckabee “sit in front of a camera in a red sweater and wish everybody a Merry Christmas.” Huckabee agreed.
The result was that a few days later, after returning to Arkansas late at night from an exhausting campaign swing through Iowa, Huckabee found himself in a private home in Little Rock, sitting in front of a camera in a red sweater, wishing everybody a Merry Christmas. The ad was all concept; there was no script. The camera rolled, and Huckabee ad-libbed the message. The first take was two seconds too long. Huckabee did it again, hitting the time right on the money, and the ad — called “What Really Matters” — was done.
“Are you about worn out of all the television commercials you’re seeing?” Huckabee began. “Mostly about politics. I don’t blame you.”
“At this time of year, sometimes it’s nice to pull aside from all of that and just remember that what really matters is the celebration of the birth of Christ and being with our family and our friends. I hope that you and your family will have a magnificent Christmas season. And on behalf of all of us, God bless and Merry Christmas. I’m Mike Huckabee and I approve this message.”
The ad begins running this morning in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. But its impact is being multiplied by discussion of it in news reports and the blogosphere. Reaction has been strong — and immediate. More than one observer has called it brilliant and effective. Others said it crossed an important line. “Mike Huckabee pretends to put politics aside,” wrote the blogger Matthew Yglesias, “[and] starts conducting his campaign as an explicit appeal to Christian identity politics.” Fox News’s Brit Hume, opening a discussion last night, said it was “not exactly a non-denominational Season’s Greetings card.”
One prominent Republican pollster — not affiliated with any campaign — agrees. “In his ads, Huckabee was clearly laying out a Christian brand,” David Winston told me last night. “He has focused on part of his brand as being Christian, and now, I think this ad is intended to soften that, to talk about family and friends and enjoying Christmas.”
Of course, it’s one thing to wish people a Merry Christmas. But is talking specifically about the birth of Christ a little much? “I think that’s who he is,” Winston said. “You’ll find a lot of people who like it, and you’ll find some people who are uncomfortable with that phraseology.” But probably not a lot; from a political-strategy viewpoint, perhaps the most effective thing about the ad is that it openly appeals to Christian conservatives — and indirectly plays into the “War on Christmas” theme that pops up every year — but likely does not alienate large numbers of other voters.
Saltsman maintains it shouldn’t alienate anybody. “The birth of Christ is what Christmas is,” he told me. “When you say, ‘Merry Christmas,’ that’s what it is.” When I asked whether the ad is exclusionary, Saltsman said, “Do you exclude people when you send out Christmas cards? Do you exclude people when you see ads where they’re saying ‘Merry Christmas’ and have Santa Claus? I just don’t agree with that.”
In October, when he addressed the Values Voters summit in Washington, Huckabee gave the most overtly religious speech I have ever seen any candidate give. He didn’t simply say, as other candidates did, that he shared a common Judeo-Christian heritage with the audience. Instead, his speech was filled with Biblical references. He talked about David and Goliath. About Daniel in the lions’ den. About the loaves and the fishes. About Elijah and prophets of Ba’al. It was serious churchgoing stuff.
I saw Huckabee a week or so later in Iowa, and I asked him whether the speech was too hot to give before a general audience. He seemed a little surprised by the question. “The ultimate purpose of any speech,” he told me, “is to hit the target, and the target is your audience. I’ve heard people say, ‘Oh that was a brilliant speech, I didn’t understand it, it was way over my head, but it was a brilliant speech.’ Well, it wasn’t a brilliant speech. If a shooter consistently hits over the head of the target, it doesn’t prove that he’s a good shooter. It proves he can’t shoot. So the whole point is you aim for the target. The target in that room was people for whom faith was the motivating factor to be involved in public policy.”
Now, in “What Really Matters,” the target is bigger: a large part of the electorate in the early-voting states. But there’s another target, too: Mitt Romney, the man who planned his campaign so carefully, who conducted painstaking strategic audits to analyze the tasks involved, who invested millions of his own dollars in the effort, and who now finds himself flummoxed by the clever ad-libber from Little Rock, who may not know an enormous amount about being president, or about foreign policy, but sure knows how to hit the target.