Mike Huckabee made news — and history — Tuesday when the New Hampshire affiliate of the National Education Association endorsed him for president in the upcoming primary — the first time it ever recommended a GOP candidate. (It picked Hillary Clinton on the Democratic side — no surprise there.) His support from teachers stems partly from his policy views (opposition to vouchers and support for art and music education, which he calls “weapons of mass instruction”) and partly from his outreach efforts (this summer he addressed the NEA convention — the first Republican presidential candidate ever to do so — plus he met personally with the New Hampshire union).
But that doesn’t fully explain Huckabee’s appeal to teachers. After all, he also supports policies that they oppose, such as teacher testing and abolishing tenure. While he’s expressed reservations with No Child Left Behind, he hasn’t proposed scrapping it, as the unions would prefer. And while “reaching out” to strange bedfellows can make headlines, it rarely yields endorsements.
The Huckabee-teacher connection reveals something about politics that is likely to transcend New Hampshire: Teachers, like Huckabee, tend to be culturally conservative and economically populist. And they like these views packaged in an optimistic, positive message. To the degree that people like to support candidates whom they can relate to, Huckabee is a natural fit for the teacher vote.
First, consider teachers’ values. The conventional wisdom says that most teachers are die-hard liberals, trying to foist a secular worldview on their hapless students. But research doesn’t show that. Consider their views on homosexuality. According to an article by scholar Robert Slater which appeared in a recent issue of Education Next, teachers aren’t terribly tolerant. Only thirty percent of teachers believe that homosexual relations “is not wrong at all,” compared to over forty percent of the general college-educated population. Furthermore, greater numbers of teachers attend church regularly than other Americans: 37 percent go at least once a week, compared to 26 percent of the general population. Many teachers are cultural conservatives — just like Huckabee.
At the same time, teachers earn a modest income compared to other college graduates. (This is where the conventional wisdom is right.) Their average income of about $49,000 is roughly $10,000 more than the national average for all workers but about $10,000 less than nurses and accountants earn and less than half the pay of lawyers. Huckabee’s class warfare, anti-big business language resonates with many teachers. His focus on kitchen-table issues, his personal history of coming from meager means, and his “I feel your pain” rhetoric is thus tailor-made for this group.
Finally, teachers are positive — about their work, and about life. According to April’s job satisfaction survey published by the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center, educators express a high degree of job satisfaction and happiness. Only clergy, physical therapists, firefighters, and artists express more satisfaction on the job. And remarkably, special education teachers are happier than everyone but clergy, firefighters, travel agents, and architects. (Elementary teachers and education administrators aren’t far behind.) Thus, the stereotype of a smiling, caring kindergarten teacher seems closer to the mark than a caricature of an angry NEA delegate at the Democratic National Convention. And there’s a good chance that happy, satisfied people will respond well to a positive, upbeat message — Huckabee’s stock in trade. His line at the CNN/YouTube debate (defending his support for in-state college tuition for illegal immigrants) that “we are a better country than to punish children for what their parents did” no doubt resonated with these legions of smiling teachers.
It also has not hurt that, as governor of Arkansas, he increased spending on education (something most teachers love). Huckabee is a self-styled “paradoxical conservative” — fiscally liberal, economically populist, and culturally conservative. He will say that he is both pro-life and pro-poor. Outside of the Christian Right, this may not sell well with rank-and-file GOP activists. But it does strike a chord with teachers, many of whom are also “paradoxical conservatives.”
Will any of this matter in 2008? Perhaps not; most teachers are registered Democrats, so their support may not do Huckabee a lot of good in the primaries. But if he makes it through to the general election, it’s conceivable that he could steal a lot of their votes from the Democratic candidate. And that could make a big difference to the outcome; there are three million teachers, after all. In a close election, a major swing to the GOP could be a deciding factor. Teachers like Mike — and if Huckabee is to make a truly serious run at the White House, he will need them more than ever.
– Michael J. Petrilli is a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and an executive editor of Education Next. He served as a Bush Administration official in the U.S. Department of Education from 2001-2005.