A funny thing is happening on the way to Republican nomination. Mike Huckabee is leading the average of Republican presidential primary polls and is getting the best results against President Obama in head-to-head matchups. However, he hasn’t decided whether he’s running or not.
Much speculation suggests Huckabee’s personal finances will factor in his decision. His work on Fox News and ABC Radio as well as his speaking engagements provide Huckabee a healthy income, with which Huckabee has been able to purchase a beautiful new home in Florida. A presidential run would mean giving up high-paying gigs to campaign in Iowa and New Hampshire.
However, in an interview with the AFA Focal Point program, Huckabee made clear that finances would not be the determining factor in whether to run or not, pointing out that his first run for office had cost him a comfortable living in a nice house, and the possibility of taking that step again won’t deter him. One big challenge is that Huckabee is enjoying his work on Fox News and doesn’t want to leave for a campaign that won’t be able to win.
Huckabee has raised the concern that Obama could be very difficult to beat, a reasonable concern given America has only once since 1896 given a party control of the White House and then turned them out in the next election. However, with the economy still in trouble and only 23% of the American people saying the country’s on the right track, the possibility of a Republican victory seems far more likely than would be typical.
Whether Huckabee is using a checkbook, scales, or poll numbers to weigh his options, many pundits and activists have taken to warning the former Arkansas governor that the time to decide is coming very soon. But when must Huckabee decide? The answer may be sooner than Huckabee would like, but perhaps later than pundits demand.
Some of the pressure on Huckabee has nothing to do with the current campaign, but rather how previous campaigns have been conducted. In the last three election cycles, the campaign for the presidency has been super-compressed and front-loaded. Last year, the Iowa caucuses were held on January 3, with most of the delegates being awarded by Super Tuesday in early February. Expectations that Huckabee should have announced his candidacy yesterday are based on the 2008 process.
However, since 2008, the Republican Party has taken steps to correct front-loading and push most primaries back to March or April, with Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada voting in February. The 2012 Iowa caucuses are set for February 6, which would be the latest that they have been held since 1996. Since the Iowa caucuses in 2012 will be held about the same time that Super Tuesday was held in 2008, some adjustment of expectations would be in order.
In the 2000 presidential campaign, George W. Bush announced his candidacy for the presidency in June 1999. Two months later, he proceeded to win the Ames straw poll, the Iowa caucuses, the Republican nomination, and then the presidency. Given Huckabee’s strong grassroots ties in Iowa, he could make a decision to run in mid-June and be able to win the Iowa straw poll.
However, does Huckabee want to win the Iowa straw poll? According to IowaRepublican.com, Huckabee’s Iowa chairman from 2008, Bob Vander Plaats, has advised Huckabee not to enter the presidential campaign until after the straw poll. This may seem counterintuitive. Huckabee’s second place finish at the Ames straw poll solidified him as a force in the 2008 campaign.
But waiting to announce until after the straw poll may be a wise move. Huckabee is no longer an unknown governor in desperate need of momentum, but a nationally known figure both in Iowa and the nation. Were Huckabee to compete for the Iowa straw poll and not win, it would be a devastating blow. For a candidate with credibility and a strong base of support, spending limited resources on winning a non-binding straw poll would make as much sense as a major league baseball team spending $10 million extra to get the best record in spring training.
After each Iowa straw poll, many campaigns fold due to their failure to gain momentum coming out of the straw poll. Candidates like Lamar Alexander and Dan Quayle in 2000 and Tommy Thompson and Sam Brownback in 2008 dropped out soon after Ames. By not being a candidate until after the straw vote, Huckabee would avoid getting into skirmishes with candidates who will not be in the race come caucus night. He will also be better able to attract their supporters.
Some national observers, such as two columnists for the Daily Caller, warn Huckabee dallies at his peril, invoking Fred Thompson’s late-starting campaign as a warning against waiting too long. The comparison between Huckabee and Thompson is off the mark. Thompson’s campaign suffered numerous stops and starts, with rumors being floated that Thompson was about to announce several times between mid-May and September, which frustrated many potential supporters and made many question his seriousness. In addition, Thompson supporters oversold him as the next Ronald Reagan, and party activists found him failing to meet these lofty expectations. National Review’s David Freddoso summarized the problem in 2007: “the demand for Thompson appears to outstrip the supply.”
Huckabee, on the other hand, is a known quantity. Voters who lean towards him in polls are doing so because they like Huckabee, not necessarily because they imagine him as Reagan the second.
Consider also the example of Bill Clinton’s late announcement in 1992. The reason Clinton won the nomination despite waiting a long time to announce was because the Democrats had a lackluster field and lacked any candidate that truly excited voters. This could be an apt parallel for the 2012 contest. If candidates like Tim Pawlenty or Haley Barbour don’t catch fire with the conservative base, Huckabee could make an entrance in late August and still be able to claim the nomination.
Huckabee does face risk in waiting. A candidate could catch fire and block Huckabee’s entrance. However, right now, this possibility seems a long shot. At the moment, despite the rumblings of the pundits, time remains firmly on the side of Mike Huckabee.
See also “Huck Fine?” at the Tatler.