Politics & Policy

Sign of the Times

The GOP should not underestimate the political significance of Mike Huckabee.

If you were listening carefully Tuesday night at around 9:16 EST, you heard a collective sigh of relief as the GOP establishment greeted Mike Huckabee’s concession speech with a, “good, that’s over.”  But it is precisely the now-we-can-move-on reaction that is a threat to Senator McCain’s presidential aspirations — far greater than Senator Obama’s rhetorical skills or Senator Clinton’s nine political lives.

The problem the GOP faces right now is that they never have understood the political significance of Mike Huckabee’s extraordinary candidacy and electoral buoyancy. From inside the campaign, I saw an almost inexplicable gap between who Huckabee really is and who he is perceived to be . . . and the same is true of the values voters he is leading. Over the last month, I’ve been asked repeatedly why he wasn’t getting out of the race — no one ever picked up on the simple, and obvious, answer that the Governor himself repeatedly offered: his supporters didn’t want him to get out.

Mike Huckabee offered a voice for a significant portion of the electorate that feels disenfranchised.  Unfortunately for the GOP, the synonym for this group is “their base.”

Take a look at the polling data. During the time between the two Super Tuesdays, the governor was still consistently pulling a remarkable 30 percent of GOP support in Rasmussen’s national polling; McCain was barely breaking 50. The results in Texas mirrored this trend: even in the face of nearly a month of the media repeating that a win for his campaign was “mathematically impossible,” Huckabee drew 38 percent of Texas Republicans to cast their protest votes, and McCain pulled only 51 percent.

I do not make this observation to detract from Senator McCain’s victory in any way. His political resurrection during this campaign is one for the history books and any fair observer has to give him credit for the tenacity, determination, and leadership it took to engineer his resurgence. Nevertheless, his slim margins should be worrisome to the McCain camp.

Those of us who live and breathe politics will support him. But we’re not the ones he needs to worry about.  It’s the home-schooling mom who brought her children to the Huckabee phone bank, working late into the night — she’s the one he needs to inspire. Prior to the Iowa caucus, my own children worked next to a young girl whose mom flew her up from Texas to the Des Moines HQ, just to work the phones.

When I arrived in Iowa in mid-December prior to the Des Moines Register debate, I asked Sarah Huckabee, the Governor’s daughter and National Field Director, what her sense was on the ground. Would we be able to trump Romney’s well-financed and well-oiled operation with our volunteers? She smiled ruefully and admitted that the odds were long, but then she laughed and told me that the governor’s supporters were the type of people who would stand in the middle of the street and rend their shirts for him. 

It’s being able to inspire that kind of enthusiasm and devotion that takes a candidate from an asterisk to the top tier. And it’s that kind of enthusiasm that McCain is going to need to defeat the aspiring, “first-ever” candidate in an electoral-change cycle.

Cynics are responding that Huckabee’s Iowa victory can be discounted because it’s a solidly evangelical red state. Maybe. Still, it might be worth recalling that President Bush won the state in 2004 with the barn-burning margin of . . . 50 percent. Closer even than Ohio.

It doesn’t take a political genius to see that this year’s election will be decided by the Eat-Your-Vegetables of campaign management: turnout. In Tuesday’s contest in Vermont alone, the Democratic turnout set a record. Overall, the turnout in the Democratic primaries has been running at a rate of over one and a half times as high as the turnout in the Republican primaries.

The Republicans are going to have to find a way to address this Enthusiasm Gap. But to the extent that the GOP establishment recognizes that Huckabee was at the forefront of a political phenomenon occurring under their noses — has a previous campaign ever achieved so much with so little? — they appear to be responding by maligning it rather than attempting to mobilize it.

The Sunday before the Iowa caucus, the governor stunned observers by agreeing to appear on Meet the Press. Commentators viewed it as a high-stakes gamble; the governor saw it as an opportunity to get his message out. Predictably, Tim Russert tried to corner him with the “aren’t you imposing your faith with your pro-life views” question. Rather than dodging or giving a bland answer, the governor replied directly: “It’s not a faith belief. It’s deeper than that. It’s a human belief. It goes to the heart of who we are as a civilization.”

This kind of straight talk on the life issue has few equals in today’s political climate. The values voters recognized that and responded.

Of course, the McCain camp understands that they need to bridge the Enthusiasm Gap with values voters.  But the senator’s initial efforts at the recent CPAC conference were not reassuring. The senator mentioned his pro-life position in the first section of his speech, but then went on to outline the heart of his message.  This campaign, he said, would be about “Big Things.” What are the Big Things? Terrorism, tax cuts, judges and doubling back in the end to winning the war.

This is precisely the driver behind the political phenomenon of Mike Huckabee’s remarkable run: he understood – and was willing to stand up and say in the face of ridicule – that life, marriage, and the cultural concerns of everyday moms and dads are some of the Biggest Things of all.

Charmaine Yoest served as a senior adviser to the Huckabee campaign.  She is a vice president of the Family Research Council but the views expressed here are strictly her own.

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