With Ted Cruz picking up the endorsement of Bob Vander Plaats as well as Congressman Steve King in Iowa along with a spate of national endorsements, does former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee have a prayer of beating Ted Cruz? Is it time for Huckabee and his supporters to give it up and let the ascendant freshman Senator claim his place as the conservative frontrunner?
I would argue Huckabee still has a shot for several reasons.
Money, Big Time Endorsements, and National Organization are Misunderstood
This is not to say that money, endorsements, and a national organization are not important, but they’ve not been put in perspective.
Bob Vander Plaats, when endorsing Cruz, lauded his success in building a large organizations and raising big money. Vander Plaats said, “Unlike years past where we worked so hard to elevate a conservative candidate only to watch that momentum stall for lack of resources, Ted Cruz offers us an opportunity to launch a candidate who has what it takes to win the nomination and ultimately to become the next President of the United States.”
So, for a solid conservative candidate, the formula for success along with a serious conservative platform is great financial resources and a solid national organization.
Imagine a solid, reliable conservative Senator from Texas boasting a massive war chest and a host of endorsements from conservatives across the country. That candidate finished fifth in Iowa in Single digits.
I’m not predicting Ted Cruz’s fate. The Senator I’m talking about ran twenty years ago. In 1996. Senator Phil Gramm (R-TX) was the national favorite among movement conservatives as a strong fiscal and social conservative. More than a year before the Iowa Caucuses, he had millions in cash on hand and was strong fiscal and social issues. He finished tied exactly with 1988 Iowa Caucus winner Bob Dole at the Ames Straw Poll only to finish fifth in Iowa and drop out.
Or take 2000 when national conservative leaders such as Paul Weyrich and Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell coalesced behind magazine publisher Steve Forbes, who in addition to strong Iowa support was bolstered in New Hampshire by an endorsement from the New Hampshire Union Leader. Forbes finished second in Iowa, a distant third in New Hampshire, and dropped out after losing Delaware.
2008 saw many national conservatives such as Weyrich, and then ACU Chairman David Keene endorsed Mitt Romney, who brought a huge war chest to Iowa and spent a fortune to finish second. Fred Thompson was bolstered by talk radio and a host of conservative leaders and also received the endorsement of National Right to Life.
Yet all of these underperformed dramatically despite their big money and great friends. This would suggest a couple of things. First, a host of conservative leaders endorsing a campaign isn’t necessarily a good thing, as there’s a disconnect between grassroots leaders and the voters who will ultimately decide the nomination. We’ll discuss where some of those disconnects are.
Secondly, it’s helpful to look at a presidential candidate as a product being sold to voters. In this analogy, politicos look at the campaign’s war chest and organization as a core benefit of a candidate. In reality, it’d be more accurate to view this as only the candidate’s marketing department. If the candidate is not a good product, it doesn’t matter how good the marketing is, he won’t sell in the long run.
While Vander Plaats may express dissatisfaction with the results earned by Huckabee and Santorum on limited budgets, each won more states than any unsuccessful GOP candidate since 1976. Both came within single digits of primary wins that would have given them the nomination despite their limited campaign budgets. (Huckabee in South Carolina and Santorum in Michigan.) Each presented a solid product that nearly won despite heavy odds against them which is a far above what many candidates with more money and better organizations have managed. Many would argue it would make sense to build on that success rather than level it to the ground. Indeed, historically Republican nominees have tended to be people who ran strong but unsuccessful campaigns before.
Huckabee Does a Better Job Speaking to Working Americans
If you were to define Cruz as being like Huckabee and Santorum only with a stronger national organization and a lot more money, backing Cruz would be a no-brainer. However, Cruz is different from them. The money and organization is an advantage he has but there are disadvantages also.
Both Huckabee and Santorum built their campaigns on an appeal to working class voters. The rhetoric and the focus of Cruz’s campaign is entirely different, focused entirely on courting conservative activists. He’ll reference “Reagan Democrats” but seems to lack the understanding Huckabee and Santorum had that the GOP had to reach out and speak to working class, blue-collar Americans.
This is an important point in Republican primary politics. In 1996, 2008, and 2012 while candidates such as Phil Gramm, Mitt Romney, and Newt Gingrich were celebrated by conservative intellectuals and talk radio, when grassroots voters had their say, the conservative alternatives that emerged were those who spoke to the concerns of every day working Americans rather than to full-time political activists.
Cruz doesn’t connect with voters on the personal level in the same way Huckabee does. For many Conservative activists, this is an almost irrelevant point. However, it’s actually critical. In ten general elections, the candidate who best connected with the American people on a human level has won.
That includes Ronald Reagan’s two victories. Unfortunately, many conservatives who champion Reaganism don’t really understand how Reagan succeeded. They imagine he won because he showed up and presented his conservative positions on the issues and the voters were instantly impressed. That he possessed warmth, charm, and an ability to connect with people who didn’t necessarily agree with him on everything is nice but had nothing to do with how he won the White House or became a great president. In reality, it was a vital part of what made Reagan successful.
Huckabee has Experience to Winning and Governing
Governor Huckabee demonstrated his ability as a wise and competent and state executive who managed to make key reforms to the way the Government in Arkansas worked while also showing skill in getting his legislative agenda passed through a hostile legislature. He managed to make inroads with Black voters in his state while still remaining true to conservative values. This record provides me with confidence Huckabee would not only be a conservative but that he could competently execute the office of President of the United States.
Cruz’s record as a U.S. Senator, with less than half a term under his belt, doesn’t inspire such confidence, nor do the things his campaign proffered as a substitute for executive experience that’s relevant to the presidency. We’re told he argued nine cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, which is great but has little to do with managing millions of federal employees, working a complex relationship with Congress, or commanding America’s armed forced. And while it’s true his eighteen months at director of the small Office of Policy Planning of the Federal Trade Commission is more executive experience than Obama had, it’s hardly sufficient preparation to be the Chief Executive of the United States of America.
This issue is critical for many of the people who will decide the nomination. The early State of South Carolina, with its large veteran population, tends to vote for the candidate they believe most suited to be Commander-in-Chief. Other than Ben Carson, no one is in a weaker position than Cruz on that point. Even Donald Trump could point to his private sector leadership experience as superior to Cruz’s.
Others could do far more. Chris Christie, who has been surging in New Hampshire, could argue he’s qualified to be Commander-in-Chief because, as a former federal prosecutor, he’s dedicated his life to keeping people safe. As a governor, he’s shown he can get things done. It’s an argument that would carry sway with the somewhat conservative voters across America who are key to winning many primary states.
Even beyond executive experience, Huckabee has a record of experience winning general elections in Arkansas where Republicans had consistently lost outside of the Presidential race. 1998 is perhaps the best example of this as Republicans had a bad year across America due to public perception of the impeachment efforts against Arkansas Native son Bill Clinton. Yet Huckabee won his first full term by 20 points in that difficult environment with strong support from the African-American community.
Cruz’s one general election in 2012 doesn’t demonstrate any extraordinary electoral ability. Cruz outspent his Democratic opponent 28:1 but ended up garnering 56.5% of the vote, which isn’t impressive when you consider the lackluster Mitt Romney campaign carried Texas with 57.1% of the vote.
Like past candidates with strong support from national activists, Ted Cruz has money and organization, but he lacks that ability to connect personally with voters and reach beyond the appeal of party activists.
Both Cruz and Huckabee face steep odds at winning the White House. However, the fundamental problems with Cruz’s campaign are far harder to correct than Huckabee’s small campaign war chest. A little less than two months before the caucuses, Cruz has momentum. However, recent history shows that means little as voters opinions tend to be volatile in these last few weeks.
Huckabee has built a solid organization in Iowa and has hope to close strong. Huckabee’s task is to convince Caucus goers that the ability to connecting with voters and a demonstrated competence at governing are more important than a big bank account and big endorsements.
Disclosure: Adam Graham has endorsed Mike Huckabee for President and is author of the ebook, Road to Victory: A Conservative’s Case for Mike Huckabee.