Saturday, February 26, 2011

The case against Mike Huckabee

Chris Cillizza, of the Washington Post, continued his series of the pros and cons of prospective GOP candidates in 2012 with this entry on the compelling case against Mike Huckabee to win the nomination.

Briefly, his points, in his own words (modestly edited), are:

1. A (non) organization man: Huckabee hasn't built any larger-scale campaign operation much beyond the spartan group he relied on in 2008. While his non-formal organization worked in Iowa, it also ensured that he could not capitalize on the momentum his caucus win should have created for him. Huckabee flailed in New Hampshire, narrowly missed a win in South Carolina and was helpless to match the efforts of former Gov. Mitt Romney (Mass.) and Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) in Florida. Huckabee's unwillingness to build that sort of operation heading into 2012 means that even if he could pull off another Iowa caucus win, he would likely fail to capitalize on it. Again.

2. Money matters: Huckabee's unwillingness or inability to put together a serious organization is his unwillingness or inability to put the pieces in place to raise the tens of millions he would need to compete seriously. In 2008, Huckabee raised $16 million for his campaign, a sum that was dwarfed by the likes of Romney, McCain and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani. While Huckabee's communications skills allowed him to excel in retail campaign states like Iowa and, to a lesser extent, South Carolina, he was non-competitive in larger states -- Florida, for one -- where millions were needed to reach voters on the airwaves. If the the race goes beyond the first three states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, Huckabee looks almost certain to watch as he is drastically outspent by rivals more committed to the cash collection process. Again.

3. The pardon problem: Huckabee's pardon commutation of the sentence of Maurice Clemmons, a man who murdered four police officers in Seattle, Washington in 2009, is a major problem. Huckabee either pardoned or commuted the sentences of more than 1,000 people --- more than three time as many as the state's three previous governors combined. That's an opposition researcher's dream.

4. Fiscal conservative?: Huckabee's fiscal record has rankled many leaders in fiscal conservative circles; the CATO Institute gave Huckabee an "F" in its 2006 fiscal policy report card -- one of only two Republican governors to earn that "distinction". The influential Club for Growth, too, made clear its antipathy toward Huckabee in the last election when it spent more than $500,000 attempting to stop his momentum in Iowa. Huckabee did raise taxes -- including the sales tax -- during his time as governor and, while he rightly notes it was done with bipartisan support and led to a budget surplus in the state, that may not satisfy die-hard fiscal conservatives. Huckabee faced relatively little scrutiny on his tax record during the 2008 primary fight but it would almost certainly be prime fodder for his opponents this time around.

5. A "serious" hurdle: Huckabee made his name during the last presidential race with his sunny demeanor and his comedic timing. But, a winning smile and a terrific personality alone won't get you elected president. While it's an indisputable fact that Huckabee has high favorable numbers among voters, real questions remain as to whether there is a difference between liking him and believing he can be president. (Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin may well face a similar problem if she runs in 2012 too.) Huckabee, then, must walk a tight rope -- stay true to the optimistic funny man that proved so winning in 2008 while also showing people that he is ready and able to be the leader of the free world. Huckabee is an able politician but that may be too difficult a challenge even for him.

Now, my comments:
Sounds like the beginning of internal messaging sessions for his potential competitors. In IA first, and then in SC, candidates like Pawlenty, Barbour, Gingrich, and Santorum are going to have to go after Huck's base in order to survive. (In fairness, they will have to come after Romney's base in NH, if for no other reason than that it is the largest.) They will spend tens of millions of dollars each to undermine Huck and to recast him. For that matter, if he were the nominee, Obama would spend hundreds of millions of dollars to do the same thing. And Cillizza's point is that Huck will have minimal organization and money with which to respond.

Huck's strength in 2008 was using the pre-existing social networks (church and home school) to go "viral". Those networks took decades to build. They are incredibly cohesive, and that made them very effective at coalescing around a single candidate. But they are also incredibly insular, sticking mostly to others like themselves, culturally, geographically, and demographically. Cillizza's point about how to make it work after SC goes to these points. While candidates have a year to lay the groundwork for the first four contests, thereafter the campaign accelerates in both time and money. As a result, the candidate is favored who has the most money and the most effective organization, or the most flexible and nimble.

Since the previous four contests have already winnowed out the marginal and superficial players, the remaining candidates can no longer survive on niche constituencies or geographies. The candidate has to move beyond cohesive constituencies to adhesive constituencies. (I just made that metaphor up, remembering what my chemistry prof taught me about the properties of cohesion and adhesion.)

I would add one other point to the five Cillizza raises: The Issues.

Not only must each candidate fight the battles on the geographic battlefields dictated by the primary calendar, they must also fight it on the battlefields of the issues the electorate feel are most compelling. Huck continues to fight on the battlefields of social issues. Witness his dressing down of Mitch Daniels on suggesting a "truce" on social issues while we solve the economic ones, as well as calling out the President over the non-defense of DOMA. During the 2010 cycle, Huck built his network out with candidates and supporters who were unapologetic values warriors. That identity makes him genuine for SoCons, but leaves the remaining voters suspicious at best.

As we move into 2012, if those issues drive the political conversation nationally, especially as the electoral calendar moves larger from Super Tuesday and into the general election, then Huck is in good shape. But, if as polls continue to show, the conversation is about jobs, taxes, deficits, and size of government, Huck will not be seen as an authentic voice or candidate. Expect Pawlenty, Barbour, Gingrich, and Santorum to drive a wedge in the SoCons to say that while all five of them are fight authentic SoCons, one of them other than Huck is the real deal for economic issues.

If and when Romney comes after Huck, expect him to choose those issues as the battlefield he wants to fight the fight on.

Ric Pugmire


BOSMAN said...

Hi Ric,

I think the biggest obstacle for Huckabee is personal.

Here is a guy who is making BIG MONEY for the first time in his life. Does he want to end all that on the hope that he can win and if not, the probability that Fox won't take him back.

He in his late 50's so he's still young enough to try it another day.

Revolution 2010 said...

It obvious the Huckabee isn't trying to hard to ready for a 2012 run.

I to believe it is more of a money and comfort factor at Fox.

Anonymous said...

Good analysis Ric. While I would very much prefer that Huck not run at all, if he did it could be fun watching the wheels come off his campaign.


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Anonymous said...

If Huck runs, I would recommend several 30 second testimonial ads from families of the victims that resulted from his interfering with the Judicial system.