Iowa showed the potential for Mike Huckabee and South Carolina demonstrated his limits. The pundits waxed lyrical after Huckabee’s win in Iowa. He had transformed GOP politics or redefined the Reagan coalition or signaled the revenge of social conservatives or ushered in a new “change” storyline for the primary season. Well, perhaps it was something simpler and more limited.
Huckabee beat Mitt Romney in perhaps the only setting he could win. In the highly personalized retail politics of Iowa, in caucuses in which neighbors bring neighbors (and church congregants bring their fellow congregants) out to vote, Huckabee’s engaging personality and brand of identity politics could flourish.
He also was lucky in drawing an opponent who, although exceptionally well funded, had difficulty connecting with voters on a personal level. Romney ran on a newly minted conservative platform designed to capture a skeptical segment of the electorate. Huckabee ran as one of them. It did not hurt that while Huckabee had humor and charm to spare, Romney offered all the warm fuzziness of, well, of a turnaround executive.
While the national media and conservative commentators warned the Iowa electorate of Huckabee’s record on taxes and his history of ethics troubles and revisited the Wayne DuMond episode in great detail, the Iowa voters seemed just not to care all that much. This in a nutshell was a vote for who Huckabee was — a congenial small state governor, populist, and Baptist minister — not for what policies he espoused.
To an extent, Romney unwittingly played to Huckabee’s strength with The Speech intended to respond to concerns about his Mormon faith. The Speech merely intensified Iowa voters’ focus on faith and away from issues. Ironically, voters for whom religious faith was a key consideration were reminded that Romney had to give such a speech to prove his bona fides while Huckabee merely had to give another sermon the Sunday before Election Day.
The results of Iowa were vastly over-interpreted by the media as a signal the Reagan coalition had splintered. Based on nothing more than the votes of less than 115,000 voters and a collapse of Romney’s support, pundits proclaimed a new era in primary politics. Money was out, charm was in. Experience didn’t count; change was the new rage.
Well, New Hampshire, Michigan and now South Carolina have suggested that all this may have been terribly overblown and just plain wrong. In each of these states Huckabee continued to pull in support from social conservatives and co-evangelicals. But he gained the votes of practically no one else. In New Hampshire Huckabee got 6% of voters who were not “born again.” In Michigan that figure was 8%. In South Carolina he did somewhat better but only garnered 14% of these voters.
In a multi-candidate field Huckabee’s astounding lack of appeal among non-religious right voters has been masked. However, the fact remains that voters who are not “like him” don’t much like him.
With a few more primaries under the pundits’ belts, some rethinking might be in order. Perhaps Iowa was not about the crack up of the Reagan coalition but about its enduring importance. For the GOP which is struggling with the fate and future of the Reagan coalition it should offer a lesson. Identity politics takes you only so far and successful candidates — as McCain was in South Carolina — cannot win solely on the basis of their success in attracting one segment of the Republican base. While Huckabee’s supporters offer unquestionable enthusiasm and energy, they are no substitute for a balanced base of support.
For Huckabee this suggests his future is limited. Unless he vastly and quickly broadens his appeal beyond the religious right, he is unlikely to put together a coalition of voters in the long list of February 5 states that will be needed to gain the nomination. In that sense he has been a welcomed reminder that what you believe and what you have accomplished counts more in Republican politics than who you are.