Strumming his guitar to a second-place finish in the silly Iowa straw poll this past weekend, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee has alerted political reporters that evangelicals aren't to be discounted as a voting bloc in the 2008 presidential election. Reporters covering the GOP side of the campaign were all set to discount evangelicals. The top-tier candidates according to national polls -- Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney and Fred Thompson (John McCain has all but been written off due to his dramatic fall) -- fall short of the ideal candidate for evangelicals, which makes the idea of the "perfect" evangelical candidate in Huckabee all the more compelling.
These straw polls are less a measure of a candidate's popularity than of ability to organize support in Iowa. Much is being made of Huckabee's not paying for busloads of supporters and of his support coming from the grassroots in Iowa. Thanks to Romney's caravan of buses, most media organizations are placing little credibility in his first-place finish with 32 percent of the vote (Huckabee finishes second at 18 percent). But did someone else organize Huckabee's busloads?
All this leads to The Wall Street Journal's hypothesis that Huckabee won the day by coming in second:
The biggest winner of Iowa Republicans' weekend straw poll of 11 presidential rivals may well turn out to be not Mitt Romney, whose first-place finish here was expected, but surprise runner-up Mike Huckabee, the guitar-picking former governor of Arkansas.
Should Mr. Huckabee capitalize on his second-place showing here Saturday to get a second look from demoralized Republicans unhappy with their choices -- and to get much-needed funding -- the repercussions could reshuffle the party's contest for its 2008 nomination. Social conservatives, who have come to dominate the Republican Party, could decide the candidate they have been looking for has been in the race the whole time, languishing at the back of the pack with little money to promote himself.
Everyone seems to be writing off "the other" evangelical candidate, Sen. Sam Brownback, but as Noam Scheiber notes, combine Brownback's support with Huckabee and you have a hardy 33 percent of the day's vote beating Romney. But don't expect the two candidates to come together for a common purpose anytime soon.
The New York Times seems to think that Huckabee's success is related to his joking his way to the second-place victory. I'm sure voters appreciate Huckabee's sense of humor, but these straw polls have more to do with buses than with candidates' personalities.
Here's another source of Huckabee's strength: home schoolers. It's true -- a campaign tells me that national home school advocate Michael Farris helped to organize a train of car poolers for Iowa homeschools and points out that Huckabee had two breakfast meetings on Saturday morning with some of his more ardent home-school-parent supporters.
Beliefnet's David Kuo sees Huckabee as the candidate who will bring together a new evangelical coalition. Kuo adds: "Christians increasingly see him as a 'real' Christian -- not just one made to sound like one for the political season."