More than a year ago a minority of political observers, including this author and Dick Morris, to name a few, were predicting that the Republican nominee would come from the so called second tier candidates. It didn’t take rocket science to calculate that with 42% of the nation claiming to be born again Christians – and Iowa being the buckle in the Bible Belt – either born again candidates, Governor Mike Huckabee or Representative Duncan Hunter, would eventually emerge. But it certainly defied the conventional wisdom of the time.
More than a year ago national pundits assured us that either Rudolph Giuliani, John McCain or Mitt Romney had a lock on the nomination with maybe the possibility of an outside, dark horse, challenge from Newt Gingrich or Fred Thompson. There was a problem to this reasoning, a socio-cultural-religious problem. Giuliani, Gingrich and Thompson would all be splitting the minority conservative Catholic vote in the GOP, Romney was Mormon and McCain had already publicly attacked evangelical leaders during his run in 2000, making him the darling of the media but virtually killing any hope of winning a Republican nomination. That left the born againers a simple choice, Huckabee or Hunter.
There was always a problem for Gingrich and Thompson. Running for president is a little like building a shopping mall. If you are well connected and have all the money in the world and can get the zoning and building permits that others can’t and can have your workers busy around the clock with big lights allowing work at night, it still takes a certain amount of time to build a shopping mall. And running for president, with trillions of dollars at stake, even with a TV network behind you, takes time. There are little things that have to be done. Not since the days of Dwight Eisenhower has someone come in late and won and today, even an Eisenhower, may not be able to finesse the arcane party and state rules.
Newt Gingrich wisely tested the waters and backed off. Thompson dove right in and was stunned to find his “Reagan act” going nowhere. Stories of his personal life were running rampant along the word of mouth network among the evangelicals now controlling the levers of power in the local GOP political machines.
Now, some pundits are telling us that Romney will actually win tomorrow night because he has a paid organization and indeed that should close the gap and make a big difference, paid beats volunteer every time. And all the other pundits are saying that even if Huckabee wins it doesn’t do anything but hurt Romney, Huckabee’s win cannot translate into anything more.
This reasoning is based on three arguments. One, that Huckabee has no money and thus cannot compete with television advertising in the big primaries that will quickly follow. Two, Huckabee is not even on the radar screen in New Hampshire, showing that Iowa is a fluke. And three, there are a lot of Baptists in Iowa and Huckabee is a Baptist, which explains his win.
That last point is so ignorant and irritating to Americans with some religious sense about them I’m going to address it first. Governor Mike Huckabee is not a Baptist, he is a Southern Baptist. Only 2% of Iowans identify themselves as Southern Baptists. Yes, there are approximately 16 million Southern Baptists in the country, it is the largest Protestant denomination in America but 95% of them live in 13 southern states. Less than 2% of Iowa is Southern Baptist and the Northern American Baptists who do live in Iowa are half evangelical and half liberal Protestants. When I worked the Bush campaign in 1988, very few North American Baptists were involved in the Republican process. Huckabee’s evangelical support in Iowa, like ours and Bob Dole’s and Pat Roberson’s comes from Pentecostals and Charismatics. They, more than any other religious block, control the state GOP.
And all of this explains why Huckabee can’t win in New Hampshire. This is one region of the country where there aren’t many Southern Baptist nor Pentecostals nor Charismatics. It is also a region of the country where Republicans have done poorly in recent general elections, notwithstanding New Hampshire’s long Republican tradition.
Well, the pundits are saying, Pat Robertson did well in Iowa, coming in second in the Iowa Caucuses of 1988 but later did nothing in the South. Huckabee should follow that pattern. This too shows the media ignorance of religion.
Robertson was not a viable candidate. It was just as absurd to most evangelicals that a religious broadcaster was running for president as it was to non evangelicals. And Robertson was a Pentecostal-Charismatic who won with Pentecostal-Charismatic voters in Iowa but was rejected by Southern Baptists in South Carolina who despised his religious doctrines.
Now, this gets complicated and may be hard for outsiders to understand. But if Southern Baptists are hostile to Pentecostal-Charismatic doctrines, it does not work the other way around. So unlike Robertson, Huckabee will have it working for him both ways. Like Jimmy Carter, he will have both groups sympathetic to him. And like Carter, Huckabee is not a religious broadcaster but a Southern Governor.
If Pentecostals and Charismatics control the GOP in many Mid Western and Western States, the Southern Baptists own it lock, stock and barrel in the South. So if Huckabee wins tomorrow, as I expect him to, he will be very hard to beat in South Carolina and the rest of the South, advertising dollars or no. For Huckabee will have what no other candidate in the GOP has, the hearts and minds of the Party activists who are overwhelmingly evangelical Christian. It is a built in political machine that money can’t buy.
So what does it mean? Won’t Huck still lose in New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Illinois and California, where television advertising will dominate? And won’t Romney beat him in many Mountain States? Without money, yes, Huckabee will theoretically lose them all. But with wins in Iowa and in the South an alarmed, knee jerk, reactive, anti-religious media will likely go on the attack, blasting Huckabee’s faith and a backlash of Internet dollars could make him viable in those state too.