February 6, 2016
In 2008, Mike Huckabee set a record for GOP Iowa Caucus votes. In 2016 Mike Huckabee exited the campaign the night of the caucus. Why? The standard explanation is Iowans (and Republicans nationwide) tired of him. Eight years ago, he was a shiny new object. Now he’s someone we’ve seen on TV for almost a decade.
The first time he was able to rally Iowa evangelicals. This time, he competed with the 2012 winner, Rick Santorum, plus Dr. Ben Carson, and Ted Cruz. That doesn’t even account for Rick Perry, Scott Walker, and Bobby Jindal, all of whom hoped to play on this field before they were ejected from the competition.
An old model, on a crowded lot, with only so many evangelicals to drive him home. Simple. Easy. Faulty. I’m sure I’ve said some version of the above paragraph multiple times over the past few months. There is some truth to it. Candidates who would have performed well with less competition were crowded out.Mostly, Cruz just wants to be president more than Huckabee does. This is a tough job interview, the hardest in the world. Having participated in ’08, nobody knows this more than Huck. At that time, there were two benefits to his effort. There was always a chance to parlay an Iowa upset into a victory.
A narrow loss to John McCain in South Carolina blocked his chance at getting nominated, but Huckabee wound up with the considerable consolation prize of national exposure, which he parlayed into a multi-year gig on Fox News. Combined with speaking engagements and books, his net worth soared from a few dollars to a few million dollars.
That was a solid return on investment. It was also a road map for future candidates. Huckabee was not the first evangelical-friendly candidate to hit Iowa. Pat Robertson finished second in 1988. Others, like Gary Bauer in 2000, tried the same tact less effectively.
He wasn’t the first economic populist to try his hand with Republican primary and caucus voters. Pat Buchanan was there first in 1992 and 1996. But Huckabee combined the two and added a layer of general likability and decency, making him more popular and viable than his predecessors.
There are parts of the 2008 Huckabee coalition spread between Donald Trump, Carson, and Cruz. In between, the 2012 Santorum campaign was proof of concept. While Huckabee had almost no name recognition when he began, Santorum was best remembered for getting vaporized in his 2006 bid for a third Senate term.
If anything, he was more underfunded than Huckabee, and lacked some of his crossover appeal. Yet, he posted comparable results, showing it wasn’t a fluke. By 2016, a several candidate pile up filled the lane.
Huckabee could have run in 2012. Depending on how you score things, either he or Mitt Romney was the 2008 runner-up. For decades, Republicans had nominated the next man up. Huck had the advantage in what you would now call Ted Cruz states, Romney the edge in bluer places.
Given the desire of GOP voters in 2011 and early 2012 to find a Romney alternative, it’s easy to imagine Huckabee would have had a solid chance. You can still find people who will tell you he would have fared better against President Obama that fall. I’d be inclined to agree with them.
He just wasn’t ready. After growing up poor and living on minister or politician wages, Huck was finally banking some real money. His Fox show was weekly, not daily. He was popular. Nobody runs attack ads against weekend TV hosts.
Romney was raising plenty of money and lining up his team. Much of the GOP establishment was behind him. Hardly insurmountable, but Huckabee probably thought his odds were 50/50 at best. You can’t run for president and host a TV show at the same time.
In order to lock down campaign team commitments, start trolling for endorsements, and begin building a funding base, you need to start at least 12, ideally 18 months ahead of Iowa. This would have forced him to make a preliminary decision by fall 2010 and stop doing his show by early 2011.
To give himself a real chance, Huckabee would have needed a larger and more professional campaign than his 2008 insurgent effort. If you really want the presidency, you’ll do these things. John McCain scaled up from his 2000 underdog bid for 2008. His initial effort foundered and he needed to reboot, but he was all in throughout.
Huckabee just wasn’t ready to make the commitment to a front running campaign. He may not have wanted to run at all. Once the first window passed, he would have jumped in at a disadvantage. Other candidates like Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry and Santorum were hiring some of the operatives he would have needed, chasing the endorsements he had.
So he passed. Understandable. Keeping his show, Huckabee sat out the cycle. He wasn’t active during the primary cycle, didn’t serve as a surrogate for Romney in the fall. In doing so, he nailed his future window shut.
Many Republicans have won the nomination in their second or third try. Unlike Democrats, who rarely nominate someone who previously lost out (If Hillary gets the 2016 nod, she’d join Al Gore and George McGovern as the only examples in the past 100 years), Campaign 2.0 is usually an advantage on the GOP side.
Those candidates never sat an open nomination cycle out.
2012: Mitt Romney (competed in 2008)
2008: John McCain (competed in 2000)
1996: Bob Dole (competed in 1988 and 1980)
1988: George H.W. Bush (competed in 1980)
1980: Ronald Reagan (competed in 1976)
Even Richard Nixon, who successfully contested the nomination in 1960 and 1968 was the most active surrogate in the party during the 1964 campaign and 1966 midterms. He remained very much in the mix.
Sitting on the sidelines removes the ability to build loyalty, win favors and keep your team committed to you. He couldn’t win over establishment figures, nor put himself on the Tea Party front lines. A whole new generation of non-coastal GOP leaders came of age while he was sleeping. In 2016, he would face some of them in competition. Others would endorse their peers instead of Huck.
As a result, a competitive 2016 campaign would have required very heavy lifting. Cruz got started in 2013, moving seamlessly from Senate candidate to nascent presidential aspirant. Santorum, who made some of Huckabee’s mistakes for 2016, was still more current and had taken many of Huck’s endorsers, only to lose them to Cruz. Bobby Jindal got an early start.
If Huck was very serious, he could have built a first-class data operation. Bernie Sanders, Cruz and Carson have all raised large sums from small individual contributors. There is no reason Huckabee couldn’t have done this too. But it takes effort, and Fox would have frowned on him pushing that hard while still under contract.
He may have deceived himself with polls. Surveys taken in 2013 and 2014 generally showed Huckabee among the front runners. Much of this was due to familiarity and name recognition. Candidates can’t run as an insurgent twice. Those who expect to compete with an underdog’s infrastructure tend to fail.
If being president was truly important to Huckabee, he would have done more and done it earlier. By 2013/early 2014 he was plenty financially secure. Instead, he probably ran out of obligation. If you’ve already gotten somewhat close and polls are showing you in the top tier, and you know you can’t wait another four years, it’s tempting.
He likely didn’t want to wonder what would have happened. Now he doesn’t need to. Huckabee will tell you he did 100+ events in Iowa, went to all the little counties. I’m not saying that’s easy. But he skipped the truly painful part of trying to win. Assembling a great team, hitting up donors, building a true grass roots fundraising architecture.
That’s hard as hell and completely different from having the patience and personality to make your 44th Pizza Ranch stop a memorable one for the 32 people you see there.
I sometimes pick on Ted Cruz when his ambition is too visible, when he pontificates too much during interviews on his campaign strategy and tactics. This is because it’s counterproductive to his goal of winning over enough voters. It’s still important to respect the tremendous effort he and those around him have made.
Mike Huckabee is not a lazy man. Lazy people don’t run for the presidency twice. For at least the past three decades, Ted Cruz gets up in the morning, goes over to the mirror and looks back at a future President of the United States. Mike Huckabee looks back at Mike Huckabee.
A majority of swing voters would rather have Huck in their living rooms for the next four years. But Ted is more willing to do what he needs to get there.