Crowded Field

Huckabee Finds His 2016 Opening

With his populism, emphasis on the middle class, and personal likability, the former governor could run the table in the South—and in Social Security he’s found a tailor-made issue.

04.20.15 9:15 AM ET

Like all presidential candidates, Mike Huckabee professes to care about working Americans. And by vocally defending Social Security from attack as he did last week, Huckabee is signaling that he actually means it. In a Republican field where would-be nominees seem all too eager to please the party’s donors or to regurgitate platitudes, Huckabee’s embrace of Social Security and Medicare is a distinction with a difference.

The former Arkansas governor told The Daily Beast in an interview on Friday: “I’m getting slammed by some in the GOP ruling class for thinking it wrong to involuntarily take money from people’s paychecks for 50 years and then not keep the promise government made.” For Huckabee, defending Social Security and Medicare may also be smart politics, and a policy pivot that allows him to get beyond his traditional evangelical base.

Let me explain. While the Republican Party is the political home to most white voters, it is also the party of choice for older Americans. Yet, it is those very voters who would be hit hardest by the Social Security cuts that are being pushed by New Jersey’s Chris Christie, Florida’s Marco Rubio and Paul Ryan, the House Ways and Means Committee chairman and failed 2012 vice presidential candidate. Message to the GOP 2016 field: If you’re incapable of talking to younger Americans, at least don’t offend the folks who still like you.

According to the numbers, Americans 45 years old and up are trending Republican, and seniors are now voting ever more Republican with each passing election. Advocating “entitlement reform” à la Christie and Rubio, or coyly toying with reduced Medicare benefits as does Ted Cruz, is less an act of courage, and more akin to poking a stick in the eye of the Republican core, all for the sake of raising campaign dollars and placating the hedge fund gods.

As Huckabee sees it, national security and whether the economy “will improve for working people” will be the defining issues in the upcoming nomination contest. With the stock market hovering near all-time highs, but with wages stagnating and upward mobility calcifying, Huckabee may have a point, and his own likability may help him drive the message.

The ability to connect to the Republican middle-class base is one of Huckabee’s strengths, as borne out by his intra-party favorability ratings. According to Public Policy Polling, Huckabee’s favorability numbers among Republican voters are 56-21, which is a lot stronger than Jeb Bush (41-37), and clearly better than Rand Paul (49-26).

Looking ahead, Huckabee plans to build on his 2008 win in the Iowa Caucus and improve on his second-place finish in the South Carolina primary. Says the governor, “We are poised to do well in Iowa, South Carolina, the SEC Super Tuesday states...and that will winnow the field dramatically.”

SEC Super Tuesday? Yes, SEC, as in the Deep South college football powerhouses. Right now, it looks like Arkansas, Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, and Tennessee are planning to hold their primaries on Tuesday, March 1, 2016. Seven years ago, Huckabee won those same five SEC contests on Super Tuesday, February 5, 2008. So, the challenge for Huckabee is to repeat his past victories, pick up the Palmetto State, and then move on to being more than simply a regional candidate.

Huckabee will likely announce his candidacy on May 5, in Hope, Arkansas, Bill Clinton’s hometown, a move that Suzi Parker, my Daily Beast colleague, notes is rife with personal history, challenge, and meaning. To be sure, Huckabee has serious respect for Bill’s political chops, but he sees Hillary as less adept, and also vulnerable on account of her record.

According to Huckabee, he first met Bill in 1980, and probably first met Hillary in 1991 or 1992. Huckabee predicts that Bill “will be a tireless campaigner—and more effective than her.” As for Hillary, Huckabee views her as plagued by her past. “I think her record is her problem—her reset with Russia, Benghazi, the emails, foreign money to the Foundation, her being ‘dead broke,’ etc.,” says Huckabee. In other words, all the things that make the “New Hillary” as likable and authentic as the old one stand to make the fall contest close.

Huckabee is mindful of the dynastic nature of the 2016 race, with another Bush and another Clinton vying for the presidential nod, but right now he is soft-pedaling the issue, saying, “the good news is—there’s never been a ‘Huckabee Dynasty.’”

For the moment, the more immediate questions are whether there will be a Huckabee presidency and, by extension, whether he can capture the Republican nomination. According to the polls, the GOP primary contest is shaping up as a battle between Bush and the anti-Bush, and Huckabee is bunched in the middle of the pack.

Against this backdrop, Huckabee’s ability to drive Social Security takes on extra significance and urgency. With Rubio and Christie pushing for Social Security cuts now, despite the fact the system is projected to be solvent until 2033, and shilling for the GOP’s financial wing, Huckabee has an opening. 

If Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential run teaches the GOP anything it is that politics is transactional, that the electorate need to be given something in exchange for their votes. Yet, sadly, it looks like most of the Republican field was absent the day that lesson was taught. Earth to the GOP, you can’t expect folks to blithely accept Social Security cuts or be told to keep on working longer without being given something in return. There’s more to life and politics than just tax cuts for the 1 Percent.

With Social Security, Huckabee has a tailor-made issue. The question is whether he will be able to drive it hard and ride it to a victory. Right now, don’t count him out.