Huckabee's Underrated Electability

One of the things that’s baffled me about recent primary punditry is the constant belittling of Huckabee’s chances. Matt Yglesias, for example, thinks that Huckabee couldn’t win a general election because he’s a “white evangelical identity politics candidate.” I’ve heard others express similar views.

This doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. To start with, Huckabee is the most talented campaigner in the Republican field. He’s personable, quick on his feet and knows how to use self-deprecating humor to his advantage.

The rap against Huckabee seems to be that he’s the second coming of Pat Robertson and will therefore scare off independents with his right-wing social views. I think this critique misfires for a couple of reasons. In the first place, every Republican candidate other than Rudy holds (or at least pretends to hold) substantive views on social issues that are quite similar to Huckabee’s. Every serious Republican candidate (by which I exclude Rudy) is pro-life and anti-gay. Voters for whom those issues are deal-breakers just aren’t going to vote Republican no matter who the nominee is. So Huckabee’s not at a disadvantage on that score.

On the other hand, as Huckabee frequently points out, he’s very good at defending conservative views without sounding angry about it. He’s very conservative on social issues, but he doesn’t sound that conservative when he’s on the campaign trail. For voters who aren’t paying very close attention (and that includes a lot of swing voters) Huckabee is likely to sound like the kind of candidate they’re comfortable with.

I think a lot of members of the liberal (and libertarian) secular elite have a weird blind spot when it comes to religion and religious rhetoric in politics. They tend to find sincere religious sentiments so alien that anyone who is conversant with the language of faith sounds nutty to them. But like it or not, this is still a predominantly religious country, and lots of voters respond well to religious rhetoric of the non-angry variety. I personally find it every bit as off-putting as Matt does, but we’re in the minority.

Most importantly, as Matt himself points out, of all the Republican candidates, Huckabee is most in touch with the political mood of the country in 2008. Huckabee’s populist rhetoric has the potential to appeal to the same sorts of disaffected voters that gave Ross Perot 19 percent of the vote in 1992. This is something that Rudy McRomney, would be simply incapable of doing. And his lack of establishment ties makes him the only Republican (other than Ron Paul) who could plausibly distance himself from the Bush administration, which will be a large advantage in the general election.

If I were a Democratic strategist, I would be far more worried about a Mike Huckabee nomination than about running against Rudy McRomney.