Friday, April 29, 2011

2008 vs. 2012 - Huckabee

Two of the top contenders for the 2012 Republican nomination also ran in the 2008 primary: Romney and Huckabee. It's worth considering the ways in which these candidates are in a better or worse position than the last time they ran. Today we will examine Huckabee.

As explained in our Profile of Huckabee, his 2012 strategy is to repeat his 2008 strategy, but perform a bit better. His path to the nomination is to win Iowa again and to win South Carolina--where he lost by 3% last time.

In many ways, Huckabee is better off today than he was four years ago. He was an unknown, polling at around 0% and in desperate need of greater name recognition. Nobody predicted that he would do well, even in Iowa. Campaign infrastructure (i.e. money) was almost nonexistent, because no one wants to contribute money to a sure loser (unless he's Ron Paul).

Huckabee was also labeled "the preacher," as he had spent several years as the pastor of a Baptist church. The fact that he was the governor of Arkansas for ten years seemed to leave little impression in the media, which was tends to remember only one salient fact about lesser-known candidates. Despite being "the preacher," Huckabee was unable to gain endorsements from prominent Christian leaders. Even they wanted to back a winner, and chose to support candidates like Giuliani or McCain.

Huckabee was dismissed by the Republican establishment, who viewed him as an outsider. They preferred to support Romney. Romney was competing energetically in Iowa, outspending Huckabee by an overwhelming margin

At first glance, it appears Huckabee will start from a much stronger position this time around: He has name recognition and good poll numbers, and Romney is likely to spend his resources in New Hampshire rather than tearing down Huckabee in Iowa. But it's worth pointing out that Huckabee has some new challenges:

First, Huckabee will be faced with more difficult questions during the primary debates. During the primary debates of 2007-08, Huckabee was repeatedly asked questions about his religion. Debate moderators saw him as "the preacher," so their questions revolved around topics like evolution or the Christian role of women. Huckabee feared he was being marginalized. In fact, he was being given a gift. Huckabee was questioned on the very topics he knew best, and his answers endeared him to the religious voters in Iowa.

Second, Huckabee will be viewed as a more serious threat by his opponents. Last time, he took the other candidates by surprise--Huckabee's sudden rise in Iowa during the final weeks before votes were cast was aptly called the "Hucka-boom." Huckabee nearly won South Carolina a few weeks later: McCain barely won, with the assistance of another candidate (Thompson), who devoted himself solely to attacking Huckabee and helping McCain.

When a candidate is viewed as the frontrunner, he comes under withering attacks from all his opponents. Many frontrunners are only temporary for this reason. Huckabee's mettle has yet to be fully tested.

Elephant Watcher currently gives Huckabee a 12% change of winning the nomination.