So why is Mike Huckabee staying in the race for president? What does he hope to gain? What is he seeing that the rest of us don’t see?
Ahhhh, it is the last question that answers the first two. Huckabee is reading different numbers on his chances and so far, his numbers are proving the more accurate. The cable networks and their pundits who keep telling him to drop out of the race are reading the numbers of evangelical voters in a given contest. Huck, who is afterall in a different business than entertainment news, is reading the “born again” numbers and it has made all the difference in the world.
Here is how it works. A young couple and their family has been attending a Nazarene Church for the last six years. They like it, they are comfortable, they support the values, they will vote for a candidate who lines up. At the exit poll they are asked by a cable news network if they are an evangelical? Well, they aren’t sure; this is a term that has been imposed from without, a catchall with negative connotations. In 2000, John McCain called evangelicals “agents of intolerance.” They don’t give to television evangelists. They are just Nazarene, or maybe their church is Southern Baptist, or Assemblies of God or some other “community church.” A huge percentage of evangelicals still do not know that they are, in fact, part of “the evangelical group.”
Huckabee is working with Gallup numbers, the only truly reliable numbers on religion. It is what we worked with in our successful 1988 campaign for George Herbert Walker Bush, who won 81% of evangelicals nationwide. Gallup’s numbers could be trusted then because they offered a definition inside the question itself. And because they offered a point of reference. (They had been publishing their surveys of religion for years.) And because no special interest drove their polling, it was strictly a curious socio-cultural snapshot of America.
Here was Gallup’s question…
“Are you a born again Christian, that is, have you had a turning point in your life in which you committed yourself to Jesus Christ?”
In 1984, as we looked ahead and planned the GHW Bush presidential run, 39% of the American public said “Yes” to that question. Today the number is closer to 42%.
In 1992, Gallup finally added an addendum to the above question to make it clear…
“And / or, are you an evangelical?”
To all of the above that Nazarene couple would have answered yes.
This year, Evangelicals have watched with bemusement and then horror as the cable news networks have hashed and rehashed who they are, what they believe and why they vote the way they vote. One would think that having an evangelical or two also commenting would be good marketing. Can you imagine networks full of whites talking on and on about Black voters with nary a word from the Black community itself? Well, you got it with evangelicals.
And the same arrogance led to their pointless, irrelevant polls. It led to them believe that Huckabee’s diminished evangelical pool could not support wins in the South on Super Tuesday, for example. But while they saw 28% of the voters in a given state as evangelical, Huckabee knew that twice that many were born again Christians who would support him.
We encountered a similar problem in the 1988 cycle. CBS News had exit polls showing that 17% of the nation were fundamentalist Christians. This was a period in which national ignorance of religion in the media was so widespread that we couldn’t get the media to see the difference between fundamentalists, in the John Rice tradition, Jerry Falwell, for example, and the larger evangelical movement. The difference was huge. For example, our Gallup polls, including an excellent purloined survey that had been commissioned by Robert Schuller, showed that only 2% of the nation considered themselves as Fundamentalists, while the 39% claimed to be born again.
So where did CBS get its 17%? Most of the public was far more informed about religion than the elitists in media who covered it. Some people answered no to CBS, even though they were born again Christians, some thought, well, I am not a fundamentalist but I think they are really wanting to know if I am born again. They said, yes. Others thought, maybe they are getting it mixed up with evangelicals, and so CBS came up with a bogus, irrelevant number that represented nothing more than a grasp in the dark.
For a brief period, the national news media had a perfect window into this world through John Ellis, a cousin of the Bush family who ran the polling division at NBC. The computer programming pioneer, Roman Godzich, who would later become famous for introducing news on the internet, had set up the NBC system. And we, evangelicals at the Bush campaign, were backtracking to NBC, to help them ask the right questions. The secular media thought our campaign was out of its mind for its early courting of evangelicals. But we got our work done, most of it by 1986, and we were moving into mainstream waters completely by the last year, unscathed by media antipathy toward our Christian allies.
This week, as frantic conservatives tried to drive Huckabee out of the contest, he saw numbers twice as big as theirs. He, alone paid attention to how evangelicals were cutting in Iowa in the last three days when the estrangement between Mormons and Evangelicals surfaced. He knew that if he dropped out, his supporters would not go to Romney. The race would be over. He knew that the bogus attacks on his conservative credentials would not phase his base. (Huckabee’s most liberal moment as governor of Arkansas was raising cigarette taxes in state. Evangelicals don’t care about “sin taxes.” They cared more about Romney’s support of gay civil unions and pro choice in Massachusetts.)
So why does Huckabee stay in the race?
Because in their rush to destroy his chances they have frightened the whole evangelical movement, maybe even awakened parts of it and united parts of it that Huckabee had not been able to reach. MSNBC openly sneered at him, for no apparent reason other than his faith. CNN marginalized him, excluding him from a debate when he was only 1 point separate from Mitt Romney in national polls. FOX News led its Super Tuesday morning program with Karen Hanratty’s anti-Huckabee rant, “Thank God he won’t be the nominee. I don’t care what he does.” Evangelicals themselves feel under attack.
But Huckabee’s numbers proved prescient, the networks bogus. And he is still reading those numbers and must follow them to their end conclusion in Virginia and elsewhere. Now he has become something more. He represents a huge segment of the nation that is feeling excluded, ripped, vilified and powerless. The media hostility and pushing and shoving is awakening the giant. Too late to win the nomination but not too late to bargain at the table of a beleaguered candidate.
This week the media elites, in their great ignorance of evangelicals, will announce that the negotiation have begun at C-PAC between Movement Conservatives and the nominee, John McCain. But C-PAC will represent only the Catholic talking heads and institutions inside the beltway. The negotiations will not be over. Any bargaining with evangelicals will now have to pass through the hands of Governor Mike Huckabee.