It’s tempting to compare Mike Huckabee’s presidential campaign to Jimmy Carter’s in 1976.
Both men, personable and devoutly Christian former governors from small southern states, began in total anonymity, only to navigate their way in dogged fashion to the head of crowded primary packs.
In Mr. Carter’s case, the momentum carried him all the way to the Democratic nomination and the presidency, a feat that made him the patron saint of all future White House long shots from both parties—Mr. Huckabee included.
While Mr. Huckabee is still a long way from the G.O.P. nomination, he has moved into the lead in Iowa and is running a close second (just six points behind Rudy Giuliani) in a recent national poll. No Republican’s stock has risen more dramatically this year, and there’s no sign—yet—that he’s crested.
Like Mr. Carter, Mr. Huckabee is blessed with an unusually flawed collection of primary rivals, which has made voters more receptive to other voices. And just like Mr. Carter, he is banking on a breakout showing in Iowa.
But there’s one crucial difference that’s going to make it extremely difficult for Mr. Huckabee to pull off an out-of-nowhere victory: we’re on to him.
Since independent polling was relatively rare and only marginally reliable back in 1976, Mr. Carter was able to maintain his dark horse status right up until the voting started. The polls that were released tended to focus on the national race, and not early primary states, masking Mr. Carter’s growing strength in Iowa and New Hampshire throughout 1975, and maximizing the value of his “surprise” showings in both states.
But Mr. Huckabee’s cover has been blown. A half-dozen new independent polls, it seems, are released every week, surveying opinion in every pocket of the country and within every conceivable demographic niche. At this point in 1975, there was chatter that Jimmy Carter might end up turning heads in the early states. But in 2007, there is enough quantitative proof for members of the media, as ABC’s George Stephanopoulos did on Sunday, to declare Mr. Huckabee “the new front-runner in Iowa.”
That designation, a month before any votes are cast, is a mixed blessing, to say the least. It aids his ability to raise funds, attract media coverage, and draw crowds to his events, just as it boosts his poll numbers elsewhere. But he is also subject to a type and intensity of media coverage that was missing in 1976, when there weren’t 24-hour cable news channels and Web sites devoted to tracking every nuance of the campaign.
That means there are more chances for Mr. Huckabee to stumble, and that the impact of any mis-step will be amplified with an immediacy that didn’t exist in 1976. The uproar over Mr. Huckabee’s admission to a reporter—for an on-line publication—that he hadn’t seen the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran this week is a good example. There’s also a risk of over-exposure: Will the novelty of Mike Huckabee wear off too soon?
Another difference is that every candidate competes in just about every primary and caucus now. Sure, some—like John McCain and Rudy Giuliani in Iowa—might de-emphasize a state or two, but anyone who wants to run for President in this era has to enter the race at least a year ahead of time and find a way to win early in the process.
It wasn’t this way when Mr. Carter ran. In fact, he was considered something of a curiosity by the press when he insisted throughout 1975 that he planned to compete in all 31 primaries and caucuses scheduled for 1976. Until then, most candidates developed nomination strategies that involved formally entering the race late, demonstrating strength in a select few primary states (often late in the process), and then dealing with the party’s power-brokers for bundles of critical delegates heading into the convention. There were fewer primaries and caucuses in ’76, and—unlike today—candidates were hardly declared dead by the media if they went more than two weeks without posting a win.
In fact, Hubert Humphrey and Ted Kennedy were both considered the Democratic “front-runners” for much of the ’76 campaign, even though neither ever entered the race. And other candidates, like Idaho Senator Frank Church and California Governor Jerry Brown, waited until April and May—months after New Hampshire and Iowa—to even enter the race, each calculating that there would be a brokered convention. (Church won a handful of Western states and Mr. Brown ended the primary season with five wins—including in New Jersey and California.)
But Mr. Carter was ahead of the times. Virtually alone, he set up shop in Iowa, and when he finished with 27 percent of the caucus vote in mid-January (behind “uncommitted” but well ahead of any human being) the media deemed it an encouraging sign for his campaign—if not the earth-shattering event it would now be billed as. Six weeks later, he won the next contest, in New Hampshire, where—again—he’d invested more heavily than anyone else. For the rest of the primary season, Mr. Carter won at least one primary or caucus every Tuesday. There were more primaries and caucuses than ever before in 1976—and Jimmy Carter was the first to discover how, with the media playing it up, one victory so easily leads into the next.
Now, every Republican candidate is acutely aware of how strong an Iowa win would make Mr. Huckabee. And that means that he’s dealing with something else that Jimmy Carter avoided until well in 1976: mud. Mitt Romney is calling him names and condemning him in mailers across Iowa, and an intense smear campaign has been launched against Mr. Huckabee by conservatives who are either sympathetic to other candidates or just suspicious of his un-conservative immigration and economic views.
If Jimmy Carter had to contend in December 1975 what Mike Huckabee is facing in December 2007, he might not have made it past New Hampshire. Dozens of candidates have been compared to Jimmy Carter since 1976. But the only one ever to win with his strategy is…Jimmy Carter.