Digesting Iowa (R)

By now most of you probably know that Mike Huckabee and Barack Obama won the Iowa caucses last night. For the sake of readability, I will address only the Republican results in this post. (Click here for my assessment of the Democratic caucuses.)

Now, before I go any further, I must eat some crow. Here is a humorous quip by Dan Conley of Political Insider about the perils of punditry that sums up how I feel quite nicely. While my Democratic predictions were generally okay (though I thought the second tier candidates underperformed when it came to second choice preferences), my Republican predictions were slightly off, to put it gently. I may be a politico, but my punditry skills need a bit more work. I got it wrong this time. Oh well. But I'll be back!

Having said that, Mike Huckabee beat most pundits' expectations and performed better than the closing tracking polls suggested. Huckabee is a talented candidate, but I believe a large part of his strength is actually a function of how weak the rest of the field was.

Dan Schnur penned an excellent column in the Los Angeles Times a few days ago that talked about how former Virginia Senator George Allen has haunted the GOP field. Schnur alludes to something I call an "authenticity gap" that explains so much of what has happened in the Republican field.

Schnur correctly argued that Allen was the candidate of social conservatives, economic conservatives, and defense hawks. He was the experienced candidate around whom Republicans everywhere would coalesce with minimal division. However, "macaca" doomed his candidacy and left a tremendous void in the field that no candidate has been able to fill ever since.

This problem created another problem: The other Republican candidates tried too hard to portray themselves as something they obviously weren't and aren't. In 2000, John McCain was the maverick who wasn't afraid to take potshots at his own party. However, in 2007 McCain was cozying up to Jerry Falwell and embracing George Bush. It seemed awkward because, love him or hate him, it contradicted the McCain most voters had been familiar with earlier on. The very reason why his fortunes have risen in New Hampshire as of late is because he has started showing his independent streak again.

When Mitt Romney was running for a Senate seat and the governor's mansion in Massachussets back in the 90s, he adopted a far more moderate stance on social issues than what he's advocating at present. Using this strategy, he was able to ride to victory in a deeply blue state. Any Republican who could do that would likely be able to put states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, and New Jersey in play in a presidential election. Romney probably would have had far more success in the '08 campaign had he tried to run as a Lincoln Chafee or Christopher Shays Republican, rather than a Richard Shelby or James Sensenbrenner Republican. His contortions on abortion, gay rights, gun rights, and immigration have been painful to watch and have led to a severe problem with the Romney "brand." The "flip flop" label is sticking, and voters in Iowa didn't buy what he had to sell. Even worse, Romney has trapped himself with his own conservative rhetoric because it is now impossible for him to tack back to the center where he is probably more comfortable without further agitating the conservative voters he has tried so hard to woo.

In the case of Rudy Giuliani, he jumped into the race with his 9-11 halo still intact. Conventional wisdom had long suggested that he wouldn't survive because he was a moderate to liberal on social issues like abortion rights and gun control. He started off high in the polls, but as voters learned more about his record, his stock fell. He tried to reassure voters that "his 80% friend wasn't his 20% enemy," but it stopped working. As he tried to prove his conservative bonafides, that only made him look more like a panderering hypocrite. For example, his rhetoric on immigration (especially his attacks on Romney) didn't square with his policies on immigration when he was the mayor of New York. His equivocations on his feelings about repealing Roe vs. Wade also have bothered many Republicans. As a result of Giuliani's identity confusion, he has now backed himself into a corner from which the only way out is Florida. So he only has one chance to get it right.

The doubts surrounding McCain, Romney, and Giuliani left Republicans yearning for a true conservative. An authentic conservative. Enter Fred Thompson. He had the right geography, the right drawl, and a sufficiently conservative Senate record at first glance. However, while voters may have viewed Thompson as a serious conservative initially, they did not view him as a serious candidate after his much hyped campaign entry. And on top of this, it turned out that he wasn't as conservative as many Republicans had originally thought, especially after his remarks on not instituting a federal ban on gay marriage and not attending church regularly.

All of this disappointment is what allowed Huckabee to rise through the pack. He was not right with conservatives on all the big issues (e.g., illegal immigration, taxes), but he was authentic. Whenever he made a mistake on the campaign trail, he owned up to them. And rather than withering and obfuscating under pressure, he made no apologies for his record when he was criticized for it. What you see is what you get. Even if Republicans didn't agree with him on everything, including some of the hot button issues, enough of them respected the fact that he was a man of conviction, rather than contrivance and convenience.

In the case of Romney, however, contrivance and convenience may not be what sabotaged his campaign. There is another possible explanation that not many people are talking about, at least not openly: Romney's Mormonism. 60% of the Republican vote last night came from self-described evangelical Christians. That is a much higher percentage than what would be observed in a normal election. Huckabee outperformed Romney among voters who said faith was important by better than 2 to 1. (entrance poll results here) Romney's positions on taxes and immigration seem more in line with the GOP base, so one would have expected him to perform a bit better. He also had a much better campaign apparatus than Huckabee, so he should have been better able to turn out his supporters. And the controversy surrounding Huckabee's pardons and commutations seemed to be wounding him to Romney's advantage as well. While Huckabee's candor and affability should not be discounted, I can't help but wonder if Romney fell prey to something he simply can't "fix." And if that is true, then that is a shame.

John McCain would have liked to have finished third, but because Huckabee defeated Romney by such a wide margin, that story will eclipse everything else. McCain is now in a very good position to take advantage of a weakened Romney in New Hampshire. Huckabee is not a threat to him there. Notice how cordial Huckabee and McCain are being towards each other. They draw from two different bases, so they are not threats to each other at present. And they both have a common enemy in Mitt Romney, so it is in their best interests not to tear each other down because they need each other to deliver the fatal one-two punch to his campaign. Of course, if McCain beats Romney in New Hampshire, McCain and Huckabee will finally have their head to head matchup in South Carolina. Interestingly, both McCain and Huckabee are better able to withstand a defeat in South Carolina at the hands of each other than Giuliani can in Florida.

As for Ron Paul, he performed better than Rudy Giuliani and almost outshone John McCain and Fred Thompson. That Paul only lost to Thompson and McCain in such a socially conservative state by three points is quite revealing. Again, exit polls show that 60% of the voters in the Republican caucuses were evangelical Christians. Huckabee was going to win the lion's share of those votes. So this left a minority of votes to be spread across four or five other candidates. Thus, Paul's performance is actually quite respectable, especially given Giuliani's much better name recognition. However, a better barometer of Ron Paul's support will be in New Hampshire, a state that is more independent and more libertarian than Iowa. Should he not get more than 10% of the vote there, it will be reasonably safe to say that his support is more limited than his fundraising would suggest.

What does Huckabee's victory mean? Coupled with Obama's stunner, it suggests that voters of all political stripes are sick of the way the government is functioning right now. They probably think government at all levels is broken and they don't trust politicians who embody this broken government to fix it. Republicans in the Senate keep blocking the Democrats, especially when it comes to Iraq policy. Democrats in the House keep sending bills to the Senate that don't have significant Republican support. George Bush commonly criticizes the Democratic Congress and vetoes their bills for things he was strangely silent about when Republicans were in control (e.g., earmarks, spending, timeliness). Torture tapes are being destroyed by the CIA, people who should be held accountable for possible transgressions "can't recall" critical details when they are investigated, illegal immigration remains unresolved, the Katrina-ravaged Gulf Coast remains a disaster area, the price of gas is going up, and parents are feeling gloomy about the world their children are growing up in. Establishment politicians who spout the same tired rhetoric about "lower taxes, tax cuts for the rich, beating the right wing conspiracy, stopping Hillary, socialized medicine, and sanctuary mansions" were roundly rejected last night.

More than a conservative government or a liberal government, I believe people simply want a government that works. Huckabee sounded the most sincere and the most pragmatic in his rhetoric among the Republicans. He spent more time talking about why people should vote for him instead of why they shouldn't vote for his opponents. Huckabee and Obama are the two youngest candidates in the field, so they are arguably the least "tainted" by the system. America is stuck, and Republicans in Iowa believe that Huckabee should have a chance to get the country back on the road again because the other establishment types who have already had their chance only have gridlock, polarization, and a cynical electorate to show for it.

For Huckabee to win the nomination, he will now need to broaden his appeal among nonevangelicals. Had only 40% of the Republican voters last night been evangelicals, Romney probably would have won. Evangelicals and social conservatives are now solidly in Huckabee's camp. Nobody else can pry them away from him because if they haven't been able to do so already, they never will. Huckabee owns them now. The Benazir Bhutto assassination did not factor much into voters' minds this time, but a more significant event abroad may give his supporters some pause in the future. Thus, Huckabee had better bone up a bit on foreign policy and show a greater command of what's happening around the world. For now he can focus on South Carolina because the main story in New Hampshire will be John McCain. Huckabee won't win New Hampshire at all, but he could place third or fourth and it won't damage him at all. Campaigning in New Hampshire will give him an opportunity to test his appeal to a more mainstream (e.g., moderate) audience.

You can read more about the Republicans' victory scenarios here.

Congratulations to Mike Huckabee and his campaign.


Anonymous said...

High ranking state and federal Republican officials in Alabama are above the law; Bush has instructed his new Attorney General appointee not to investigate corruption in Alabama.

The GOP is deeply involved in the Jack Abramoff and Michael Scanlon scandal. Lobbyist Jack Abramoff who was a major GOP campaign fund raiser has almost 400 recorded visits to the White House. The documented prison confessions by these two along with these White House records have recently been declared secret by Bush and is being withheld by the White House. Abramoff and Lobbyist Scanlon con over sixty million dollars from the six Indian tribes that ran gambling Casinos. Abramoff also arranged secret meetings for foreign businesses and governments with the White House where Bush granted government and military favors in exchange for major campaign contributions to Bush supporters.

Now the GOP in Alabama has to depend on T. Roth and W. Canary to deal with the Choctaw Indians directly. The Choctaws aren’t the only ones that they are using scare tactics on. The GOP depends on contributions from large businesses in return for political favors. They also depend on kickbacks from military/government contractors. Some contractors in Alabama are charging tax payers as much as 80% over costs.

-We will support our present U.S. Republican senators, our U.S. Republican congressmen and our Republican governor.
-We will support our high ranking Republican judges, our Republican attorney generals and our three republican newspapers owned by Newhouse/Advance Publications, Inc. that persecutes and prosecutes those darn Democrats that keeps getting in the way.

oso diablo said...

You point out twice that 60% of GOP caucus participants in Iowa were self-described evangelicals. The question actually included both evangelicals and born-agains. While there is significant overlap between the two descriptors, they aren't exact. Evangelicals are a subset of born-agains. Barna Research reports that 45% of Americans call themselves born-again. And they skew toward the GOP. So the Iowa figure of 60% is not all that amazing.

Looking at those same entrance poll results, you find that Huckabee led the field across all age groups, among both men and women, and a number of other demographics and viewpoints.

You identified, by your keen political instincts, well before most other pundits, that Huckabee is a formidable candidate. It seems lately that you've fallen back on cortext-analysis (ie, conventional wisdom) rather than trusting your instincts.

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Silence Dogood said...

oso, I agree with Palmer on the fact that New Hampshire is not necessarily the state for the Huckster to best capitalize on his Iowa victory. He appears to have good political instincts though, adn it will interesting to me to see how he approaches N.H. at this point. As many don't expect much from him there, if he can even place or show it will be huge news. S. Carolina is his next place to be tested and either move foward or reel backwards though. I agree also with the conventional wisdom that even as we progress through the party nominating process and esp. the general election foreign policy (currently a weak point for Huckabee) will become more important. He will need to sure up some foreign policy bon a fides and seem more informed and precise on his rhetoric in that area as appease the base beomes less important (for both parties) than seeming competent while these races proceed. Voters who ignored this very issue in 2000 with Bush probably realize now that it is at their peril that either party foist another President with such little understanding of international relation to the helm again...but I am giving the voting public a lot of credit there.