Last week, Meredith Vieira asked Gov. Mike Huckabee to respond to my colleague Rich Lowry’s assertion that to nominate him for president would be an act of suicide by the Republican party. Huckabee said that the criticism came from “the Wall-Street-to-Washington axis, this corridor of power.” He added,
There’s a sense in which all these years the evangelicals have been treated very kindly by the Republican Party. They wanted us to be a part of it. And then one day one of us actually runs, and they say, Oh, my gosh. Now they’re serious. They don’t want to just show up and vote.
What he was saying, in other words, is that much of the resistance to his candidacy is based on hostility toward, and fear of, evangelical political activism.
Terry Eastland listened to Huckabee in Marshalltown, Iowa, last week. He says the same sort of thing on the stump, although he is not always explicitly referring to evangelicals.
They don’t mind having us vote for them. They don’t mind having us empower them. They don’t mind even coming and patting us on the head and telling us they’ll think very seriously about taking to heart the issues we think important. But when they get elected, they forget who we are and they never push the issues we think are important. And they are scared to death that someone who isn’t part of them might actually get elected and might actually go to Washington with a view saying, “I do know where I come from and I haven’t forgotten where I’ve been and I go for all those people whose odds are stacked against them 20 to 1.”
Huckabee seems to be talking about class resentments rather than religious ones in this passage, but the similarity of the language he uses in both cases is striking. Evangelical victimization is one of his campaign themes.
But the candidate’s analysis is wrong. Huckabee’s religion is not the chief obstacle to his candidacy, and claiming that it is will set it back.
Some of Huckabee’s opponents are uncomfortable with evangelicalism, but there are not enough of them to deny a plausible candidate the nomination. George W. Bush straddled the worlds of evangelical and mainline Protestantism in 2000, but to the extent that his evangelicalism was a factor in the two-man primary race that year, it helped rather than hurt him.
We could expect that Huckabee would do somewhat better among evangelicals than other Republicans because of who he is. But he is doing a lot more than somewhat better among evangelicals, and that is because to a large extent he is running on his evangelicalism.
In his speech before the Family Research Council — a speech that played an important role in his rise this fall — he touted himself as someone who “speaks the language of Zion [as] a mother tongue and not a recently acquired second language.” One of his ads described him as a “Christian leader.” He does not explicitly say that evangelicals should vote for him because he is an evangelical. He just comes very close.
Unsurprisingly, this message is playing better with evangelicals than with other voters. Scott Rasmussen’s recent polls of Iowa and South Carolina Republicans show that evangelicals were the first to rally to Huckabee. His late November poll was the first to find Huckabee leading in Iowa with 28 percent of the vote. He also found that evangelicals were 2.5 times as likely to support him as non-evangelicals. (Huckabee had 48 percent of evangelicals and 19 percent of non-evangelicals.)
Huckabee continued to rise after that poll, but over the last week or so has fallen back to where he was: In Rasmussen’s latest poll of Iowa Republicans, taken on December 17, Huckabee is again at 28 percent. Compared to late November, he is doing very slightly better among evangelicals and slightly worse among everyone else. Rasmussen finds the same pattern in South Carolina. Between his December 6 and December 17 polls, Huckabee improved a bit among evangelicals while slightly declining overall.
If Huckabee keeps running as the candidate of evangelical grievance — as the victim, that is, of prejudice against evangelicals — the composition of his supporters will become even more lopsided.
Unlike many of Huckabee’s critics, I don’t think there is anything illegitimate about his campaign tactics. Our Constitution leaves people free to campaign, and vote, any way they like. But the type of campaign he is running does seem to me to be counterproductive.
For one thing, it runs the risk of undermining a social-conservative coalition that has been increasingly successful over the last generation. That coalition has brought traditionalist evangelicals into alliance with Catholics and other voters who share their views about such issues as abortion. The tone of Huckabee’s campaign, together with the tone of the reactions it has generated, is bound to put strain on that ecumenical social conservatism.
For another, a campaign strategy based on building a coalition starting from an evangelical base and then expanding outward is highly unlikely to secure the Republican nomination, much less make for a winning general-election campaign. (It is more likely to make whoever follows that strategy an influential spokesman for evangelicals.)
There is nothing distinctive about evangelicals that makes it a mistake to organize a primary campaign around them. The Democratic presidential nomination rarely goes to the candidate most identified with organized labor. That’s not because other Democrats are hostile to unions or condescending toward them. It is because the unions are a respected faction within the party, not a party unto themselves.
Mitt Romney would never have dreamed of running on the basis of his Mormonism, because there are not enough Mormons in Massachusetts or the nation for such a strategy to work. There are enough evangelicals in the Republican party to tempt a candidate to follow an evangelicals-first strategy. But there aren’t enough for such a candidate to win.