05.15.11

Mike Huckabee's Loss Is Ron Paul's Gain

Now that Mike Huckabee has bowed out of 2012, the GOP field is likely to shift wildly—with Ron Paul becoming the ideal pick for voters who want to buck the status quo, says Mark McKinnon.

Give credit to Mike Huckabee for a surprisingly reasonable decision. "All the factors say go, but my heart says no," former Gov. Huckabee said, announcing his decision to not seek the 2012 GOP presidential nomination

It's awfully hard for someone who lives in the world of politics to resist the physics of the presidential tug. And there are a few fairly strong arguments that Huckabee could have gained the GOP nomination. The former Arkansas governor was the winner of the 2008 Iowa caucuses and finished second in the GOP delegate count. But he is still considered an outsider to the ways of Washington—and that’s a good thing these days. Huckabee enjoys high name recognition and a strong following among social conservatives. He led in early polling. It was possible to imagine that he could win a general election under the right circumstances. With his easy manner, warm humor, and rapid rejoinders, a faceoff in a debate against President Obama would have been interesting to watch. Huckabee heard those around him urging him to run, with their voices and their promises of campaign funds. But in the end, Huck listened to his heart. And in a sign he may be fairly human, he said, "Nah."

For a variety of reasons over the years, I've tried to not like Mike Huckabee but have been unsuccessful. While he can occasionally stray into incomprehensible nonsense, and he sometimes unabashedly plays to the base of the GOP, at the end of the day Huckabee just seems, well, kind of normal. And nice. And funny. Here’s a guy who realized that he's got a pretty good life going now with a multi-media (and multi-million-dollar) cottage industry, including the No. 1 rated weekend show on Fox News where he gets to jam on his bass guitar as backup for the likes of Ted Nugent. So why go and screw it all up with the madness of a presidential run?

Mitt Romney may be momentarily relieved by Mike’s demurral, but this means Huckabee can rip Romney even more on his Massachusetts health-care plan, as he did in his latest book, A Simple Government. And Huckabee's decision now leaves a very big opening for someone to grab the social conservative space. This will blow wind into the sails of Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum and, possibly, ignite the ambition of Sarah Palin.

Ron Paul’s followers’ passion is matched only by his detractors’ derision.

Then there’s the matter of re-run Ron. Some see him as a serious candidate, others as seriously crazy. One thing is clear: Ron Paul defies labels. A Republican congressman representing an agricultural and oil-producing district along the Texas Gulf coast since 1997, Paul wants to shrink the government, cut the budget, and “end the Fed”—not unusual positions in the Lone Star State where states’ rights, personal liberty, and self-sufficiency are mother’s milk. But Paul also advocates for deep cuts in military spending, an isolationist foreign policy, and to be intellectually consistent in the defense of personal liberty, the legalization of prostitution, cocaine and heroin,—not exactly in sync with a solidly conservative state where both God and guns are revered.

Though he espouses libertarian ideas, sometimes to the extreme and sometimes in conflict with core GOP values, Paul was re-elected by his conservative district in 2010 with a whopping 76 percent of the vote. This race for the White House will be his third. In 1988, Paul won the Libertarian Party nomination for president. Though unsuccessful as a third-party presidential candidate, he ran again in 2008—as a Republican—capturing 10 percent of the Iowa caucus vote before dropping out.

In Washington, where not many politicians mean what they say, the 76-year-old Paul, a former U.S. Air Force flight surgeon and ob-gyn in private practice, is definitely different. He says what he means. Though the media may call him the “godfather” of the Tea Party movement, in an attempt to demean both, labels and titles just don’t capture the man, nor the excitement this unlikely and unvarnished movement hero creates. His followers’ passion is matched only by his detractors’ derision. But Paul raised $3 million in the first quarter of 2011, and more than $1 million in a May 5 "money bomb" fundraiser. And a recent CNN poll showed Paul running better against President Obama than any other GOP candidate.

While Rep. Paul has followed a quixotic, long, and sometimes lonely journey—he is often the only representative to cast a "no" vote—the rest of the country may be catching up to his thinking on the economy. "Time has come around to the point where the people are agreeing with much of what I've been saying for 30 years, so I think the time is right," Paul said in his presidential announcement

What Paul’s saying may be true. With insolvency nearing for Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, with the federal government’s strong-arm tactics to dictate where businesses can open plants and create jobs, and with the pain at the gas pump and grocery store not letting up in the real world, the status quo has got to go.

There are a lot of angry voters out there who may want to register a protest vote in 2012. And Ron Paul is likely to be their Pied Piper. As usual, I think it's a good bet that Ron Paul will be underestimated and exceed expectations. Perhaps by a lot.

And here's how this week's changes affect our Top 10 GOP lineup:

1. Mitt Romney: Still No. 1, but just got a brutal beat down from The Wall Street Journal editorial page
2. Mitch Daniels: Sounds like he's leaning in. (Tantalizing tease: Condi Rice as his VP.)
3. Tim Pawlenty: Still everyone’s No. 2. No excitement building yet.
4. Newt Gingrich: He's in, and he'll make things interesting.
5. Jon Huntsman: Getting aggressive already.
6. Michele Bachmann: Will reap Huckabee windfall.
7. Ron Paul: The angrier the voter, the better he'll do.
8. Rick Santorum: Sending a thank-you note to Huckabee.
9. Herman Cain: The man can stem wind.
10. Buddy Roemer: If talent and ideas count, look out for this dark horse.

As vice chairman of Hill & Knowlton and Public Strategies, and president of Maverick Media, Mark McKinnon has helped meet strategic challenges for candidates, corporations and causes, including George W. Bush, John McCain, Ann Richards, Charlie Wilson, Lance Armstrong, and Bono. McKinnon is co-founder of No Labels and co-chair of Arts & Labs.