Advertisement - story continues below
Subtlety has never been Mike Huckabee’s strength. The former Arkansas governor, who elbowed his way onto the national political scene in 2008, owes much of his celebrity to curmudgeonly candor. In an age of electoral misdirection, with candidates cagily masking their intentions and hedging bets at every turn, Huckabee is a revelation; the onetime Baptist minister is famously (often infamously) straightforward in what he’s saying, why he’s saying it, and who he’s saying it to.
So when Huckabee in January released his latest book, God, Guns, Grits and Gravy, and then left his lucrative job at FOX News to promote it (and himself), no overthinking was required. Huckabee was not only preparing to launch a second campaign for the presidency; he was reminding Republican voters that he is more than a socially conservative preacher. He is a “proud son of the South” who can “easily relate to folks from the Midwest, Southwest, and most of rural America.” Huckabee continued in the book’s introduction: “I feel a bit more disconnected from people who have never fired a gun, never fished with a cane pole, never cooked with propane, or never changed a tire.”
If Huckabee’s first White House run was seen by Republican voters as a sermon to the religious base of the party, his campaign message this time around is an ode to the forgotten citizens of “fly-over country”—areas ignored, he argues, by the coastal media elites and professional political class of Washington. “Like a lot of Americans, I grew up in a small town far removed from the power, the money, and the influence that runs the country,” Huckabee said when launching his campaign from his humble hometown of Hope, Arkansas. “But power and money and political influence have left a lot of Americans lagging behind.”
Advertisement - story continues below
This isn’t a re-branding exercise; Huckabee, who first gained national fame for championing the “FairTax,” has long wielded a populist message with natural appeal to rural and blue-collar voters. Yet in 2012, it fell by the wayside, partially because Huckabee was pigeonholed as the evangelical champion, but also because Southern states played little role in shaping the outcome of the primary.
This time, Huckabee will return to his roots—an approach deliberately designed to broaden his appeal and, more importantly, take advantage of a restructured Republican primary calendar that places a far greater emphasis on the very states and voters that he has spent his political career serenading. Because for the first time in the modern history of the Republican Party, the path to its presidential nomination takes an early and potentially decisive detour through the South.
As the schedule tentatively stands, following the first four nominating contests in February—Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada—the campaign speeds up with a March 1 Super Tuesday dominated by Bible Belt primaries. The calendar will not be finalized until October, but Republican officials expect that as many as six states—Texas, Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, and Arkansas—could wind up voting in a bloc. (It has been dubbed the “SEC primary” after the powerhouse football programs in the Southeastern Conference.) Even if Alabama and Mississippi fail to move their primaries up to March 1, they’re currently scheduled to vote just one week later, on March 8, along with Oklahoma. Plus, Louisiana is holding its primary March 5, giving the South enormous influence no matter how Super Tuesday shapes up.
Advertisement - story continues below
There’s no guarantee Huckabee will still be standing after the first four contests; he’ll likely need to win either Iowa or South Carolina, or run competitively in both, to remain viable into March. But if he is, the primary swings right through Huckabee’s backyard—a reality at the core of his 2016 strategy.
“Now that we’ve fixed our calendar to have a majority of Southern states go on Super Tuesday, his message and his strategy fits the calendar really well.”–Republican National Committeeman Glenn McCall, on Mike Huckabee
“We learned in 2008 that you can’t just try to win Iowa, you can’t just try to win South Carolina. It’s a marathon not a sprint,” says Alice Stewart, a longtime member of Huckabee’s inner circle who is leading his communications team. “We know it’s not just a matter of winning one or two states right off the bat; it’s a long process of winning states and piling up delegates. And there’s definitely a game plan for winning those SEC states where he’s popular and where his views are reflective of the people there.”
Huckabee has reason to be confident. His 2008 runner-up finish came on the strength of his performance in the South. After winning Iowa, Huckabee waited more than a month for another victory. When it finally came—in West Virginia, then Tennessee, Georgia, Arkansas, Alabama, Louisiana, and Kansas—it was too little, too late. By then, his national momentum had dried up; and with more than 20 states voting on Super Tuesday that year, Huckabee’s Southern wins were offset anyway by John McCain’s triumphs in other regions of the country.
If anyone in the Republican field is positioned to take advantage of this cycle’s new primary calendar, it’s Huckabee. He may still be a long shot to win the nomination; changes to the calendar do not alter the central fact that, in 2008, he struggled mightily to attract support from nonreligious Republican voters. But Huckabee, given his strength in the South, could be competitive long into the contest and could shape the outcome of the primary in a way that few other candidates can. That’s because Huckabee, unlike some of his younger rivals with ties to the South—Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Bobby Jindal—has spent decades building name-identification in the region and has a head start in cultivating relationships there thanks to his previous presidential bid.
“His grassroots network is still in place from 2008 in the early states—and then he’s got plenty of appeal to those Southern states,” says Glenn McCall, the Republican national committeeman from South Carolina. “Now that we’ve fixed our calendar to have a majority of Southern states go on Super Tuesday, his message and his strategy fits the calendar really well.”
Advertisement - story continues below
That message will be heavy on biography. It already is, showing Huckabee as the Southern Republican who challenged and defeated the Democratic political machine in Arkansas, a pioneer in the ensuing transformation of the South from blue to red. “Any drunken redneck can walk into a bar and start a fight,” Huckabee says in his first campaign video this year. “A leader only starts a fight that he’s prepared to finish.”
His opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage, which played prominently in his 2008 message, is taking a backseat. Huckabee gave only a fleeting mention to social issues in his announcement speech, and it was drowned out by paeans to economic populism—railing against rising housing costs, criticizing a popular trade deal being debated in Congress, and, most notably, rejecting other Republicans’ calls for restructuring Medicare and Social Security. “If Congress wants to take away someone’s retirement,” Huckabee said in Hope, “let them end their own congressional pensions—not your Social Security!”
This tactical shift reflects an important acknowledgment by Huckabee’s tight-knit team of loyal advisers: Their candidate will not monopolize the evangelical vote this cycle. The social-conservative lane of the GOP primary is significantly more crowded than it was eight years ago, with younger candidates such as Cruz and Scott Walker (and 2012 Iowa winner Rick Santorum, among others) certain to steal from Huckabee’s base of support. That means he needs to expand his appeal and, critically, avoid being typecast as the Christian conservative candidate.
Indeed, in 2008, he lost the nonevangelical vote in every state that conducted an exit poll, save for Arkansas, where he won 41 percent of that group. That makes Huckabee’s advisers highly sensitive to the suggestion that he’s a one-trick pony. Bob Wickers, the campaign’s pollster, issued a memo two weeks before the May launch arguing that Huckabee “has a very high ceiling of support among all Republicans, not just evangelicals, according to recent public polling.” The groups that Wickers highlighted: “seniors” and “low- to middle-income voters.”
Exactly the demographic groups that dominate Republican primaries in the South.
Huckabee is seizing every chance he can get to reinforce his good-old-boy image. The night before his launch, his team hosted a group of reporters in the private dining room of a hole-in-the-wall steak house in Little Rock, adorned with deer heads and vintage Dixie memorabilia. There were tales of the golden days—Huckabee holding court in that room when he was governor, just as the Clintons had when they ran the state.
It’s all meant to demonstrate that Huckabee is a throwback, and unapologetically so. It’s meant to separate him from the Republican field, perhaps more so than any policy position. While Marco Rubio, Cruz, and Paul project an aspirational, forward-looking vision that frames the GOP as the party of the future, Huckabee is deliberately playing the everyman who is stuck in the past, yearning aloud for a bygone era when students started their school days with prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance. “We’ve lost our way morally,” Huckabee said in Hope, drawing calls of “Amen!” from the audience.
This traditionalist melancholy is a potent tool, tailored for the elderly, white, religious, rural voters who were Huckabee’s loyal viewing demographic at FOX News and who could form the core of his Super Tuesday take. Huckabee is tapping into not just their cultural conservatism, but their disaffection with the direction of the country and a fear of being marginalized in modern America.
“You walk into that room right now, what do you see? Older, white, evangelicals,” says Jacob Waller, a 27-year-old law student who hails from Hope. He isn’t a Huckabee supporter—or even a Republican for that matter—but he came out to the campaign launch because of hometown pride. He said Huckabee’s message, aimed directly at people like his parents and neighbors, can be devastatingly effective. “They want to know that Middle America, their way of life, isn’t being forgotten about.”
Two of those attendees were Roger and Shirlene Reeves, both retirees in their mid-70s who drove more than 200 miles from their hometown of Tilly, Arkansas, to watch Huckabee’s entry into the 2016 race. “He’s a good guy, he’s a pastor, he doesn’t believe in climate change, he doesn’t believe in same-sex marriage,” Roger, a retired construction worker, says when asked why he’ll support Huckabee for president. Shirlene chimes in: “He’s one of us—and we watched him every Saturday night on TV.”
This article appears in the May 16, 2015 edition of National Journal Magazine as Go South, Old Man. It was also published on NationalJournal.com and is reprinted here with permission..