Politics & Policy

Flashback: How to Fight a Huck

(Chip Somodevilla/Getty)
Advice from 2008: Don’t revile his supporters.

EDITOR’S NOTEThe following article first appeared in the February 11, 2008, issue of National Review.

More nonsense has been said and written about former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee than about any other presidential candidate. Some of his critics have accused him of being a “Dominionist” — someone who wants the government strictly to enforce all Biblical commands — because he has said that same-sex marriage contradicts “God’s standards.” One infelicitous comment, even repeated, hardly means that Huckabee is itching to stone adulterers. Yet even some conservatives rushed to compare him to the Taliban.

After Huckabee won the Iowa caucuses, it was widely said that the “Republican establishment” was panicked over it. Many commentators have said that his rise, and that of Senator John McCain, shows that movement conservatism is dying, since so many movement conservatives dislike them. Does anyone remember 1996? The candidate who came closest to being a movement favorite, Phil Gramm, didn’t make it to New Hampshire, while the candidates the movement liked least, Bob Dole and Patrick Buchanan, got the most primary votes. There are reasons to worry about the future of conservatism, but the fact that Republican primary voters sometimes disagree with the editors of the Wall Street Journal or of this magazine is not among them.


It is true that the party establishment thinks Huckabee would lose badly in November. But it doesn’t believe that he will be nominated and thus is not panicked at the prospect. It has seen candidates it regards as unelectable win primaries before. Buchanan, for example, narrowly beat Dole in New Hampshire, and Dole was both the establishment’s candidate and the frontrunner. Huckabee’s victories have been comparatively trifling.

Huckabee’s candidacy has less potential than Buchanan’s did. Buchanan ran as a strong social conservative who disagreed with most Republicans on trade, taxes, and entitlements. He promised to rally the party’s “peasants with pitchforks” against its “barons.” The exit polls showed that his social conservatism was the basis of his support. His heterodoxies on economics repelled more primary voters than they attracted.

Huckabee’s campaign has even less promise, because its appeal is limited to a subset of social conservatives: those who are also evangelical and born-again Protestants. His supporters get indignant when people make this point. They say that his critics and the press have pounced on his most innocuous gestures to scare non-evangelicals away from him. If President Clinton could refer to Christmas as the anniversary of “the birth of Christ,” they say, Huckabee should have been able to do the same thing in a campaign ad.

There have been a few too many such incidents for it to be plausible that Huckabee is simply the naïve victim of his opponents. It seems pretty clear that he has consciously tried to get evangelicals to vote for him on the basis of their shared religious views. But even if he had no such intention, the way he has campaigned — along with the predictable response to the way he has campaigned — has guaranteed that he will appeal much more to evangelicals than to other voters. Even if his opponents are at fault for characterizing him as the candidate of evangelical identity politics, in other words, he has made it easy for them to do so.

Huckabee has participated in four contests so far: Iowa, New Hampshire, Michigan, and South Carolina. The entrance and exit polls allow us to identify five trends in his vote. (The pollsters group together voters who identify themselves as “evangelical or born-again Christians.” But for convenience, and meaning no offense, I’m going to use the word “evangelical” for both.)

First: While he has never gotten a majority of evangelical voters, he has consistently done well among them. In Iowa and South Carolina, he won a strong plurality among those voters, which allowed him to place, respectively, first and second.

Second: Huckabee has consistently done more than three times better among evangelical voters than among other voters. Third: As you might expect given those first two points, Huckabee has consistently performed poorly among non-evangelical voters. He has never placed higher than fourth, or broken 15 percent, among them. Fourth: It follows that the bulk of his support has come from evangelical Christians. In Michigan, where evangelicals were 39 percent of Republican-primary voters, they were 70 percent of Huckabee’s voters. (That last figure is my calculation based on the exit polls.)

Fifth: The larger the evangelical presence in a state, the better Huckabee does among non-evangelicals. He had single-digit support among the non-evangelicals of Michigan and New Hampshire, where evangelicals were a minority of the voters. He got 14 percent of non-evangelicals in Iowa and South Carolina, where evangelicals were 60 percent of the electorate. My interpretation: Non-evangelicals are more likely to vote for Huckabee when they have neighbors who back him.

Strong support from evangelical conservatives made Huckabee a factor in the race. The point may seem obvious, especially now that I have buried you in exit polls, but it runs counter to a line of commentary about the race. David Brooks has been the most influential analyst to claim that Huckabee has done as well as he has by appealing to low-income voters, and to urge Republicans to try to follow his lead. Other commentators (including me) have pointed out that younger evangelicals are more likely than their elders to support federal action against global warming or poverty, and that Huckabee’s anti-corporate rhetoric follows this current.

Brooks is right to advise Republicans to court low-income voters, but Huckabee has hardly shown them how to do it. He has not been a font of policy ideas to help them; and while the data available do not settle the issue, it appears that he appeals only to those low-income voters who also share his religion.

Huckabee’s heterodoxies have earned him fantastic press, especially given his opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage. But they do not seem to have increased his vote totals. Perhaps that is why, over the course of the campaign, he has moved closer to orthodox conservative views. He has backtracked on his support for a national smoking ban and now says that all illegal immigrants should go home.

The Huckabee campaign has faced a series of cruel binds from the start. Forming a sizable evangelical base was probably the only way for him to become a factor in the campaign. But his particularistic appeal also guaranteed that he would not win the nomination. There are enough evangelical Republicans for a candidate to be tempted to adopt a strategy of building out from an evangelical base. But there are not enough of them for it to work. For one thing, many evangelicals will not respond to such an appeal. Some of them will find it insulting. Some of them will harbor disagreements with the candidate and will not subordinate those disagreements to their shared religion. Some of them will decide — correctly — that he cannot win the nomination or the general election. Many of the leaders of evangelical conservative organizations have pointedly refused to support the Huckabee campaign. Huckabee enthusiasts, particularly the young ones, tend to think that these leaders have sold out. The leaders think they are too seasoned to make a young enthusiast’s mistake.

But the very fact that a candidacy based on evangelicalism will not win an overwhelming majority of evangelical voters creates another bind. Huckabee may have thought that he could consolidate the evangelical vote and then expand his appeal to other voters. But for the reasons mentioned, he was never going to get past the first stage. At every juncture, it will always seem easier for him to increase his support among evangelicals than to court other voters.

So it probably helped Huckabee when, in December, he began arguing that his campaign was encountering resistance because a lot of Republicans — particularly those in what he called “the Wall Street-to-Washington axis” — were happy to accept evangelical votes but would never accept an evangelical leader. He cast himself, that is, as the victim of anti-evangelical prejudice. Such prejudice surely exists, within as well as outside the Republican party. On balance, however, being an evangelical helps a candidate within the Republican primaries. It helped George W. Bush, and it has helped Huckabee. So Huckabee’s comment fails as a serious analysis of the campaign. As a tactic, however, it was bound to increase his support among evangelicals without much increasing it among any other group of voters — and possibly while turning off those other voters.

After Huckabee took second place in South Carolina, most observers expected him to fade. Any campaign that followed the template of the Huckabee campaign could be expected to do so eventually. He will lose states where evangelicals are not strong majorities of the Republican party. Many evangelicals, seeing the result of his failure to appeal to non-evangelicals, will start to think of him as a losing candidate and a wasted vote, and start moving away from him too.


Huckabee may not be the last candidate to try this strategy. It is, for one thing, a hopeless strategy only if the goal is to win the Republican nomination. It is a much more promising route to becoming a big shot in national politics. As a result of this campaign, Huckabee is already the most prominent evangelical political figure of his generation.

The upside for Republicans is that campaigns such as Huckabee’s can bring new, young activists into the party. The history of such campaigns suggests that activists, as they get seasoned, become more realistic about how to influence politics. A lot of those evangelical leaders who have given the cold shoulder to Huckabee probably have Robertson ’88 buttons somewhere in their attics.

The downside is that such campaigns can leave bitterness in their wake. If a lot of Huckabee’s evangelical supporters conclude that the party, in rejecting him, is also rejecting them, then the damage will be lasting.

Which makes the performance of so many of Huckabee’s opponents all the more appalling. Huckabee was never going to win the nomination. He was, to be sure, a threat to some of the other candidates. Once he took off, he was going to have a lock on the votes of many social conservatives — those who are evangelicals and favor their own — but would remain unable to win. That handicapped candidates who were trying to assemble majority coalitions dominated by social conservatives of all religions — and it helped candidates who were relatively socially liberal.

Since Huckabee was not going to win the nomination, the problem he posed for the party as a whole was one of coalition management. The first rule in such a situation is not to attack the man’s supporters: Don’t call them country bumpkins. The second is not to attack him in terms that could be (and often are) applied to his supporters: Don’t call him a country bumpkin, either. The third is not to attack him in hysterical terms. Some of Huckabee’s voters could be persuaded that his ideas on economics and foreign policy were misguided and even dangerous. They were not going to be persuaded that he was a “pro-life liberal” who had hoodwinked them. Too many of Huckabee’s opponents, particularly on the Internet, violated all three rules.

A fourth rule, perhaps a corollary of the second, is not to attack him in terms that the Left regularly uses against all conservatives. Most evangelical conservatives do not want a theocracy but believe that the modern liberal version of the separation of church and state is deeply mistaken. Liberals tend to think any dissent from their preferences in this matter is at least incipiently theocratic. Too many of Huckabee’s conservative critics joined them in that confusion. To critique Huckabee’s approach to religion and politics was entirely reasonable; to adopt the ideas and even the language of secular liberalism was counterproductive. It hardened evangelicals’ support for him.

Next time we will have to do better. For there will be a next time. Evangelicals and others are going to have to live with each other inside the GOP for some years to come — and, now, with Mike Huckabee as well.

— Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor of National Review.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.


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