What accounts for Mike Huckabee's surge in the polls? The Washington Post thinks it knows: he's winning over evangelicals. This is, of course, what everyone is saying right now. According to Chris Cillizza and Shailagh Murray, Huckabee was deliberate about his appeal to the Republican constituency. Long before he began his long-shot presidential bid, the ordained Baptist minister reached out to Randy Brinson, a physician from Montgomery, Alabama:
Brinson is the keeper of a massive e-mail list of much-coveted Christian voters that Huckabee is using to reach and organize people in early-voting states such as Iowa.
Brinson's list numbers about 71 million contacts, with 25 million identified as belonging to "25 and 45 years old, upwardly mobile, right-of-center, conservative households," he said. In other words, a target-rich environment for a candidate such as Huckabee, who is preaching a compassionate conservative message heavily infused with religious sentiment.
While Cillizza and Murray's explanation sounds light, Post columnist Charles Krauthammer cast a dark shadow on Huckabee's purported outreach to evangelicals.
Krauthammer faulted Huckabee for running an ad in Iowa in which the phrase "Christian leader" appears. By Krauthammer's lights, Huckabee's commercial was a not-so-subtle smear of the Mormon faith of Mitt Romney, whom Huckabee has surpassed in Iowa:
Mormonism should be a total irrelevancy in any political campaign. It is not. Which is why Mitt Romney had to deliver his JFK "religion speech" yesterday. He didn't want to. But he figured that he had to. Why? Because he's being overtaken in Iowa. Why Iowa? Because about 40 percent of the Republican caucus voters in 2000 were self-described "Christian conservatives" -- twice the number of those in New Hampshire, for example -- and, for many of them, Mormonism is a Christian heresy.
That didn't seem to matter for much of this year, when Romney had a commanding lead and his religion seemed a manageable political problem -- until Mike Huckabee came along and caught up to Romney in the Iowa polls.
The appealing aspects of Huckabee's politics and persona account for much of this. But part of his rise in Iowa is attributable to something rather less appealing: playing the religion card. The other major candidates -- John McCain, Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson -- either never figured out how to use it or had the decency to refuse to deploy it.
Huckabee has exploited Romney's Mormonism with an egregious subtlety. Huckabee is running a very effective ad in Iowa about religion. "Faith doesn't just influence me," he says on camera, "it really defines me." The ad then hails him as a "Christian leader."
Huckabee no doubt has garnered support from evangelicals. But it's simplistic to conclude that Huckabee's surge is entirely due to to them. After all, Huckabee has gained support from non-evangelicals as well. Romney and Huckabee are tied among this large voting bloc, at 24 percent apiece.
Also, while Huckabee's "Christian leader" may have helped him with evangelicals, he has yet to run any TV commercials in South Carolina. You would think that this might hurt him. Yet Huckabee just this week charged to the lead in the Palmetto State. Perhaps Huckabee aides are emphasizing his religious background, but no reporter has produced evidence for that fact.
Might Huckabee's rise be due to other factors as well? How about his performance at the CNN/YouTube debate? That was the one in which Huckabee distanced himself from the notion that his policies are determined by what he thinks Jesus would do. ("Jesus was too smart to run for political office," he quipped.) After the debate, pundits expressed wonderment and respect for Huckabee's political adroitness.
"Evangelicals moving toward Huckabee" is an obvious story line. But it's hardly the only one that explains Huckabee's rise. Why don't well-funded newspapers like the Post show how Huckabee, as well as the other candidates, are doing among all religious groups?