Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

In a brilliant study of the Republican nominating electorate, Henry Olsen identifies four kinds of Republican primary and caucus voter. The breakdown of those groups gives Mike Huckabee a chance to emerge as the Republican nominee. From largest to smallest, these groups are the somewhat conservative, moderates and liberals, conservative evangelicals, and economically very conservative secular voters.

The two last groups might best be understood in their relations to social and economic issues. What Olsen calls conservative evangelicals might be called social conservatism-first voters. They are a little more open to a larger government (relative to other Republican factions, not relative to the Democrats). What Olsen calls the “very conservative, secular voters” might be called the economic conservatism-first voters. They are in favor of more radical free market economic change than the other Republican factions, are relatively indifferent to social issues, and are turned off by displays of religiosity.

The largest group is the “somewhat conservative” voters. These voters are both socially and economically conservative, but they are also conservative in the sense of being cautious. They don’t find political crusades appealing, and don’t want change to be any bigger than is necessary. They also like their presidential candidates to be experienced office holders and plausible presidents. This group wants a winner. That means that any candidate that wins their support must seem to have a plausible chance to win over enough swing voters to win the presidential election. These voters are conservatives, but they are suspicious of radicalism. They are not voting to affirm an identity. They are voting to elect a president.

One potential strategy is to unite the right of the party by bringing together the social conservatism-first voters and the economic conservatism-first voters. After all, both groups are very conservative in their own way. There is some reason to think that the voters of these two groups could end up in the same camp. Olsen places Herman Cain in the “very conservative, secular” category. Cain’s support in the national polls peaked at 25-30 percent. That is a bigger number than you would get from just his very conservative, economic issues-first base. My guess is that Cain was getting substantial support from “conservative Evangelical,” social issues-first voters. Cain’s surge in Iowa polls (which was slightly larger than his surge in the national polls) might be another indicator.

My guess is that many social conservatism-first voters are initially quite receptive to radical tax changes cooked up by very conservative, secular politicians. Those tax changes are sold as increasing transparency and fairness. It is also implied that, when the special interests are hammered, the average hard working American will see a tax cut. This seems like a basis for a unite-the-right strategy. The problem is that the social conservative support for the radical tax changes doesn’t last.

Huckabee tried a version of this unite-the-right strategy in the 2008 cycle. He was the favorite of social conservatives, but he was also for replacing our current tax system with a national sales tax. The problem for the Huckabee and Cain (well, Cain had lots and lots of problems) was that this alliance is tough to pull off. It turns out that the constituency for radical tax policy changes is very limited—at least for the kinds of radical changes that have been proposed. When voters look at the distributional of the flat tax, or the national sales tax, or Cain’s 9-9-9 plan, they recoil. The median voter isn’t going to go for it and neither are the “somewhat conservative” voters. This kind of strategy is especially bad for a conservative Evangelical favorite like Huckabee. He is never going to be the first choice of theWall Street Journaleditorial page or the 2014-model George Will. Proposing these kinds of radical tax changes also cuts off a social conservative candidate from the “somewhat conservative” voters. The tax radicalism marks you as an unserious candidate and a general election disaster, when somewhat conservative voters want a competent winner.

Assuming Huckabee could consolidate the social conservatism-first vote, he would be better off going after the “somewhat conservative” voters. He is pretty good at making social conservatism unthreatening. The “somewhat conservative” are the largest pool of voters and he is probably ideologically closer to them than to the very conservative, secular voters. He can’t be dismissed as just some senator who made his name with public relations gestures. Huckabee has a record as a state governor. What he needs to do is show that he has the other qualities that somewhat conservative voters value.

Huckabee needs to come across as solid, well briefed, and reformist-but-not-radical on economic policy. This a place where low expectations and a pleasant personality are Huckabee’s friends. If Scott Walker gives a good answer on the economy, it won’t be any kind of story. Huckabee is a more charming guy and, for many in the media, “Evangelical conservative who knows stuff” is a man bites Martian story. The trick is that Huckabee’s economic populism needs to be a middle-class-oriented reformism that seems to add up. He needs to come across as a more charsmatic version of Mike Lee at AEI, not a more personable version of Michele Bachmann on MSNBC. It also means he can’t fake it anymore. In the 2008 cycle, when he was asked about health care policy, he would sometimes try to shift the discussion to the time he lost lots of weight. That answer is good enough for an identity politics candidate who is just trying to up his Q-Score. It won’t be good enough for Huckabee to get the nomination. He needs to sound a little bit like James Capretta. It would be very reassuring.

The good news is that while there will be multiple candidates fighting for those “somewhat conservative” voters (Scott Walker, Chris Christie and Marco Rubio all come to mind), Huckabee will be the candidate least beholden—either mentally or financially—to the Washington lobbyist complex. While the other candidates have all made supportive noises in favor of something that includes legalization before enforcement and expanded low-skill immigration, Huckabee can run on something that combines enforcement-first to be followed by a limited amnesty and shifting future immigration flows in the direction of skills and language proficiency. That is probably much closer to the position of the party’s median voter than the Senate’s Gang-of-Eight plan. He could occupy the middle ground between Romney’s “self-deport” and Rubio’s plan for legalization-first plus expansion of low-skill immigration.

Huckabee would also have to make a plausible argument for his electability. He would have to explain how he can reach the working-class whites and persuadable African-Americans, Hispanics, and Asian-Americans that rejected Romney. Huckabee has an instinctive sense of the party’s weakness on economic issues. He famously said that Romney reminded people of the guy who laid them off and not the guy they worked with. That could have been the Republican Party’s epitaph in 2012. Huckabee has to combine his instinctive understanding of the struggles of people at or under the median, with an agenda for addressing those concerns. Ta-Nehisi Coates thought that Huckabee could be the Republican candidate to make inroads with African-American voters in an election that did not have Obama on the ballot.

It probably isn’t going to happen. Following this strategy would add a lot more work on top of the fundraising and traveling of a presidential campaign. It would mean basically studying full time (alongside his other commitments) for the next eight months and then running for president full time for another two years. If he ran, he could just cruise along on his accumulated intellectual capital. That is what every Republican presidential candidate did in the 2012 cycle—with the notable exception of Mitt Romney. My feeling is that Huckabee doesn’t want the job of president badly enough to do all the work. I suspect he won’t even run. That probably speaks well of him. It is too bad for the rest of us as he seems to be the only potential candidate with the chance to form a nominating coalition from social conservative and somewhat conservative voters—and he would be our best chance to get a Republican nominee who is not in the orbit of the lobbying industry.

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter First Thoughts Posts

Related Articles