Campaign Crawlers

Huckabee’s Religion Problem

What is helping the ordained Baptist minister in Iowa may doom him elsewhere.

By 11.28.07

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On Monday, ex-Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee released his second presidential campaign ad. Focusing on the onetime preacher's faith, it features the phrase "Christian Leader" flashing across the screen and shows Huckabee speaking to the religious conservative faithful at the Family Research Council's Values Voter Summit. It's less than subtle, to be sure. But then, the Other Man From Hope has never been shy about making religion -- as opposed to mere positions on subjects like abortion or gay marriage -- an issue.

Back in August, following the circulation of an anti-Catholic letter by a Huckabee-supporting Iowa pastor (to which Catholic then-presidential contender Sam Brownback took offense), the Huckabee camp refused to apologize. Instead, they urged Brownback to show "Christian character" and "stop whining." Earlier this month, in an interview with Salon's Michael Scherer, responding to a question about Mormonism, Huckabee commented that a candidate's faith "is not the sole criteria by which I think a person should be judged fit or unfit for the presidency." He also indicated that presidential candidates should be "prepared" to answer questions about their faith. So the message is clear: Huckabee thinks faith is, and should be, a criterion voters weigh in deciding who gets their vote. Moreover, his faith, as distinct from his pro-life and pro-traditional family views, is a big reason to back him.

Undoubtedly, many voters agree -- and especially in Iowa. There, according to the Los Angeles Times, Huckabee has the backing of 44 percent of evangelical Protestants, who constitute 40 percent of Republican caucus-goers. And Huckabee's supporters, including such evangelicals, are firmly committed to their candidate, too. Though Huckabee trails Romney by four points in a Washington Post-ABC News poll, 48 percent of Huckabee-inclined likely caucus-goers say they will definitely support him. Just 29 percent of Romney's expected contingent say the same of him. What's more, 50 percent of Huckabee backers describe themselves as "very enthusiastic" about supporting him; a mere 28 percent say the same of Romney. In the latest Rasmussen poll released Wednesday, Huckabee has creeped ahead of Romney, 28 percent to 25 percent. So, Huckabee playing the religion card is working in relatively evangelical-heavy Iowa, and well, too. But the real question is, will his strategy of pushing religion to the forefront benefit him elsewhere, or is he taking a risk in employing it, so far as other early primary states are concerned?

New Hampshire will hold its primary within a week of Iowa's caucuses and the Huckabee campaign is no doubt hoping that a win, or close second, will provide a big boost to his fortunes in the Granite State. However, his focus on religion makes that doubtful. According to 2004 CNN exit polls, just 13 percent of those who voted in New Hampshire's gubernatorial race described themselves as white, conservative, and Protestant. That suggests that evangelicals are a much sparser community than in Iowa, where 22 percent of those voting in the 2004 Senate race said the same (and 33 percent described themselves as white and evangelical/born-again). It also makes it doubtful that Huckabee's appeals to voters on the basis of evangelical faith, as separate from his positions on issues commonly but not exclusively held by evangelicals, will work in the first primary state. The same doubts could also be raised in relation to early primary states like Michigan or Florida where, again, the proportion of voters in 2004 elections who fit the white, conservative Protestant profile to which Huckabee's religious messaging is well-suited, was small (17 percent in Michigan and 15 percent in Florida).

But Huckabee's campaigning on religion could prove problematic in other ways, too. Turning a specific faith into a qualification for public office could easily have the result of voters of a different church, or religion altogether, feeling sharply separated from those backing the former Governor. A recent Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll shows that just 34 percent of Americans would back a Republican, purely on the basis of their party affiliation, were the 2008 election held today. The Huckabee campaign would do well to ask whether focusing on its candidate's faith at the risk of leaving those who may not share it feeling excluded, is really a smart strategy, in light of many voters already feeling "un-Republican." That they should question their approach is moreover the case given that religious conservative leaders have shown an interest in moving beyond identity politics, heading into 2008. Pat Robertson has endorsed Catholic and secular-appearing ex-New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Bob Jones III and Paul Weyrich back Romney, the Mormon whose religion was recently targeted in calls made to Iowa Republicans and whom Huckabee's latest ad seems to take a pop at, in more ways than one.

Such leaders are smart to recognize that it takes a broad, diverse base of support -- such as that likely to be cultivated by candidates focused on issues, not religious identity -- to win. Unfortunately for Huckabee, such broad-based, diverse support looks like something he is unlikely to attract. Ultimately, then, what happens in Iowa, will almost certainly stay in Iowa -- whether the Other Man From Hope likes it, or not.

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