Politics & Policy

Inside Huckabee’s Victory

How the impoverished governor from nowhere beat the mighty Romney machine.

Des Moines, Iowa — On the night before the Iowa caucuses, I dropped by Mike Huckabee’s campaign headquarters on Sixth Avenue in downtown Des Moines. Upstairs, in the phone-bank room, the scene was part political operation and part day care center; supporters who volunteered to make calls for Huckabee had brought their children, who were playing games while their parents worked the phone lists. In a cluttered side room, I sat down with Chip Saltsman, Huckabee’s campaign manager, and Robert Wickers, his media adviser, while four year-old James Yoest, the son of another Huckabee adviser, Charmaine Yoest, slept on a blanket spread across the floor.

Something was up. Saltsman and Wickers gave off a certain sense of serenity; they seemed to know that their man was doing very well. I would have suspected that they had some secret research showing that Huckabee would win the next day, but I knew the campaign didn’t have the money for such luxuries. So I listened as Saltsman gave what was essentially a play-by-play analysis of the Huckabee victory to come.

The campaign’s strategy was shaped by two things, Saltsman said. First was Huckabee’s talent as a communicator, and second was the fact that the campaign was always nearly broke. Put those two together, and you had a campaign constantly searching for free media exposure. “We’ve been criticized sometimes for — after a big event, we went straight to Washington to do media, or we went straight to New York to do media,” Saltsman said. “That was because a lot of those shows wouldn’t have us on unless we did that.”

“We didn’t have any money,” Wickers added.

“Exactly,” Saltsman said. “But we knew that was a big part of the process for us.”

So Huckabee went from show to show, and he came up with other attention-getting moves like devoting his first commercial to the now-famous “Chuck Norris” ad. “Any other campaign, that ad never gets shown,” Saltsman told me, “because you have a conference room full of consultants saying you can’t do it.” At the moment Saltsman was saying that in Des Moines, Huckabee himself was in California, sitting down to talk on The Tonight Show — perhaps the ultimate in free media. A number of commentators thought that was a blunder; Saltsman checked the number of Iowa homes tuned into the show on any given evening and thought it was a pretty good idea.

That disconnect between the conventional wisdom and Huckabee’s strategy worked time and again in the campaign’s favor. The most notable occasion was last week’s news conference in which Huckabee announced that he had created a television ad attacking Mitt Romney but had decided not air it. The national press corps laughed derisively. But Saltsman and Wickers believed that Iowans viewed it differently. What the press saw as too-clever-by-half opportunism, the voters saw as Huckabee saying, “I’ve been hit by lots of negative ads. There’s a temptation to hit back. But you know, I’m just not going to do it. It wouldn’t be right.” Huckabee came out fine.

As they put together a bare-bones, unconventional campaign, foraging on the free-media environment, the Huckabee team kept a close eye on Romney’s organization. They studied publicly available polling, which showed Huckabee moving upward, but they also paid a lot of attention to what Wickers called the Romney campaign’s “body language.” Simply put, in the final days of the race, Team Romney wasn’t acting like a winner. “If you have what you’re promoting as the best ground operation and organization in the state, that means the campaign manager is going to have on his laptop an Excel spreadsheet that identifies every hard-core Romney supporter in every county,” Wickers explained in a conversation after the caucuses. “That says, ‘We’ve got this campaign won. We’re done.’“ But the vibe coming out of the Romney campaign was different. “When Governor Romney was talking about lowering expectations, when he started to say that they were going to come back and win Iowa in November, I knew right there, that’s not a candidate who has information and data that shows he’s going to win,” Wickers told me. And indeed, Romney didn’t.

On the day of the caucuses, I checked Romney’s schedule and noticed that he was set to appear at a Kum & Go — a popular convenience store — in West Des Moines. The convenience store backdrop seemed a bit Huckabee-esque, until I arrived to discover that the event was being held not at a Kum & Go, but at the corporate headquarters of Kum & Go, a company called Krause-Gentle, which also owns a variety of other businesses. The CEO of Krause-Gentle is a Romney fan and invited him to speak there.

Before the event — one in which Romney’s appearance was jarringly preceded by a music system playing Garth Brooks drinking songs — Eric Fehrnstrom, a spokesman who had traveled with Romney all around Iowa, explained his view of the Huckabee campaign. “We’re going up against a loose confederation of fair taxers, and homeschoolers, and Bible study members, and so this will be a test to see who can generate the most bodies on caucus day,” Fehrnstrom said.

“Not that there’s anything wrong with any of those groups?” I interrupted.

“Not that there’s anything wrong, but that’s just a fact,” Fehrnstrom continued. “That’s just where he has found his support. I have a theory about why Mike Huckabee holds public events in Iowa like getting a haircut or going jogging, or actually leaving Iowa and going to California to appear on the Jay Leno show. It’s because he doesn’t have the infrastructure to plan events for him. And when he does do events in Iowa, he goes to the Pizza Ranch, where you have a built-in crowd, so you don’t have to make calls to turn people out. We’re very proud of the organization we have built in Iowa.”

Fehrnstrom, like the rest of Romney’s team, was unfailingly professional. But his analysis pointed to a blind spot in the Romney campaign, a blind spot most likely shared by the candidate himself. For all his money, and all his energy, and all his organizational skills, Romney could not put to rest the doubts many Iowa Republicans felt about his genuineness, or lack of genuineness. As they paid more attention to politics in the days leading up to the caucuses, some of those voters came to believe that Huckabee had more of that indefinable something that they want in a candidate. In the end, the race wasn’t about infrastructure at all — something Romney never figured out but Huckabee knew all along.

Byron York is a former White House correspondent for National Review.

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