Nothing has been more instructive in modern American politics than Mike Huckabee’s surge to victory in Iowa and semi-seriousness as a contender for the presidency.
I hedge with “semi” because Huckabee likely will come in a distant third to fifth Tuesday in New Hampshire, which will temper, at least for a week or two, his momentum.
For the moment, though, here are four powerful Huckabee-demonstrated lessons:
1. Go where the voters are.
The conventional wisdom was that Huckabee was erring by abandoning Iowa on caucus eve to do “The Tonight Show.” But consider what James Carville told me the morning after Bill Clinton went on “The Arsenio Hall Show” in Blues Brothers shades to play the saxophone in 1992, and after I had shared my inside-the-box judgment that Clinton had fatally trivialized himself: “They asked Willie Sutton why he robbed banks. He said it was because that’s where the money was.”
2. Make yourself seem real, more than a robotic political animal, by engaging comfortably and naturally in some common-touch activity with which people can readily, even warmly, identify.
Michael Dukakis tried this in 1988 by getting videotaped throwing a baseball. Alas, he merely revealed his regional limitation.
It may be all about the Red Sox in New England, but Southern males, with whom Dukakis lacked any connection whatever, prefer chucking a football or shooting a gun or stroking a golf ball or casting a fishing rod.
The universal language of music can work, too, as Clinton demonstrated on the sax. Huckabee makes himself seem regular by playing bass guitar in the rock or rhythm and blues genre. That gives him the Lynyrd Skynyrd and Allman Brothers connection right there, and maybe even the Chet Atkins and Eric Clapton and Van Halen crowds as well.
George W. managed to be altogether regular by no specific activity, but with his general and altogether average manner. Al Gore was hopeless in this area, making all the more remarkable that he nearly won, or actually did, in 2000.
John Kerry? Let us just say that windsurfing and snow-skiing are not common-touch connectors.
3. Victory goes to the more likable candidate.
The Politico.com blogger, Jonathan Martin, posted a vignette caucus morning from Des Moines. He’d met a fellow that morning in a skywalk and asked the man how he intended to vote. For Huckabee, because he was a nice guy, the man said. Then, without prompting, the man pronounced Mitt Romney a phony.
It does seem, by pure coincidence, I must assume, that guys from Arkansas — Clinton, Huckabee — get viewed as more real and likable than guys from Massachusetts, namely Dukakis, Romney and Kerry.
Perhaps things will pick up for Romney on home turf in New Hampshire on Tuesday. They’d better. He’ll be in Red Sox and acoustic folk music territory.
And, yes, there’s the case of a woman who spent nearly 20 years in Arkansas, and who, if she loses the Democratic presidential nomination, will do so solely on the basis of not seeming likable and of lacking that natural and comfortable common connection.
4. Pay scant regard to political reporters, who live in an insular culture by which they recycle each other’s thoughts.
Reporters can laugh out loud, and write disparagingly, that Huckabee would call a news conference to disavow negative campaigning, then show the very negative commercial he was pretending to be disavowing.
The voting masses weren’t in that room picking up on the fraudulent dynamic. More of them watch superficial video vignettes on local TV news than read critical commentary, whether in the newspaper or online. Reporters sometimes get to see the inside truth. But it’s something else entirely to convey it to outsiders.
John Brummett (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a columnist for the Arkansas News Bureau.JOHN BRUMMETTMORE COLUMNS