When Must Huckabee Decide?
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.