Michael Schiffer is The Washington Note’s blogger for the Iowa Caucuses and is a resident of Iowa. He is a program officer in Policy Analysis and Dialogue at the Stanley Foundation based in Muscatine, Iowa — and was previously senior national security adviser and legislative director in the Office of Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA)
Thanks Steve, for an overly kind introduction. One of the first things you learn watching campaigns out here, however, is to try to ratchet expectations down, not up, before you go on. . .That said, I’ll do my best to try to provide some snapshots and insight, live from Iowa, for the next thirteen days. After that, we get to go back to being Idaho. Or is it Ohio. . .
The last time I ran into Governor Huckabee — and yes, one of the wonders of living in Iowa is that we get to say things like that — was over the summer, when I, preoccupied on my cell phone, came pretty close to knocking him over as he crossed the street in Muscatine (a small town on the Mississippi). At the time he seemed happy to have the attention, accidental and near injurious or otherwise.
Today in Coralville — the big-box suburb of Iowa City — was a slightly different story. The hotel room used for his “meet and greet” was overflowing, and filled with the sort of positive buzz and electricity that campaigns just can’t buy. Huckabee is the breakout phenomenon of the 2008 campaign in Iowa (all apologies to Barack Obama and Ron Paul), and in the flesh here in Iowa its easy to see why.
To start with, Mike Huckabee is astonishingly normal. He strikes you as someone who could just as easily be your neighbor as standing behind the podium running for president. That counts for a lot here. And he is a fantastic storyteller. He starts off with Chuck Norris jokes and then moves on to telling the tale of a rag-tag citizenry rising up in 1776 against the “most efficient, best equipped, and best financed” army in the world — leaving little doubt by the end which campaign is rag-tag — but blessed by God — and which one has the army of advisors, consultants and fund-raisers.
And a few God references aside, Huckabee does not need to pound on the “God stuff” the way some others do; its clear where he is on that question. . .But, just to be safe, I suppose, he was introduced as “someone who understands there are more important things than politics” and, in case anyone missed what that meant, as “capable, qualified, and Christian”.
Huckabee also connects with the crowd as an economic populist and proponent of small town values. For most Iowans, that works in spades. “Designer labels” came up a few times, at places oddly, as a shorthand reference to the class and cultural divides within our nation and within the Republican electorate here, too. His “fair tax” plan, while in reality highly regressive, is sold as for the little guy, the small businessman. (And elicits revival style call-and-response murmurs from the audience.)
And he hits the mark on national security with his “Billy Jack” doctrine — both on substance and the demographics of his crowd. (The half stump speech half stand-up routine, punctuated by a dimpled smile, really works.) Just as important as hitting any of the policy points he closes out his speech by a naked appeal for help — “I need you” — and an appeal to Iowa and Iowans’ sense of their anointed role in selecting presidential candidates, telling the crowd that “if I win here it will “solidify the role of Iowa caucus like nothing else would”.
There can be little question that Mike Huckabee has the big mo in Iowa right now. And talking to people after the event its clear why: He comes across as real and genuine and down to earth — but as someone who shares the values of a republican electorate that, for caucus-going purposes, is almost half evangelical, and with the “experience” box checked by his years in the governor’s mansion.
But Iowa, as every political commentator will tell you, is all about organization and a good “ground game”. If you can’t translate inspiration into organization, as numerous non next president’s of the United States can tell you, you won’t make it past caucus night. And Mike Huckabee, for all the good feeling he generates as he bounces around the state, is flying by the seat of his pants. When we arrived at the hall for his speech no one was there yet to hand out the all important supporter pledge cards that let the campaign identify supporters and make sure they show up on caucus night. And when we left the cards were there, but it was hard to tell if there was any staff to collect them.
The story of a rag-tag rebel army overcoming the well-oiled machine of empire is a good one. And, like the colonialists, the Huckabee campaign can rely on alternate social networks that can be effectively organized and mobilized that traditional power-centers might not recognize or be able to tap into. And in just thirteen days we will see if history repeats itself for Mike Huckabee here in Iowa.
— Michael Schiffer