NEW YORK CITY -- Until the very end of his campaign, Mike Huckabee defied convention. While other presidential candidates would have taken half a day to gear up for a concession speech – thanking supporters in the meantime and leaking the bad news to reporters so everyone would make the official goodbye -- Huckabee decided to take care of business quickly.
At 7:59 p.m., a close senior aide signaled Huckabee was "getting close but not quite" at the point of concession. By 9 p.m., the campaign confirmed Huckabee would drop out that night. Fifteen minutes later, Huckabee took the stage at the Texas watch party to declare it was all over. He never waited for the D.C. political reporters to show up.
"We started this effort with very little recognition and virtually no resources," Huckabee said in his speech, his wife Janet at his side. "We ended with slightly more recognition and very few resources." His audience laughed. "But what a journey. What a journey, a journey of a lifetime. It is not lost on me where I started."
Where he started was at the back of the pack. Little-known Mike Huckabee, with his unconventional name, unconventional background, and expressive caterpillar eyebrows faced incredible odds going into the campaign cycle – in late fall, reporters liked to trade stories about Huckabee sightings at the baggage carousel or in the lobby of a three star hotel. Although he had served as governor for 10 ½ years, Huckabee came from a poor state with no personal wealth and a limited pool of resources. Only thirty staffers hired to run a national presidential campaign, Huckabee marveled in his concession speech, "No one has ever gotten this far with such limited resources."
He was, furthermore, a Washington outsider who had been snubbed by the D.C. political machine, the one that Mitt Romney courted with chameleon-like maneuvers. The night before the Iowa caucus, the loudest political prognosticators had proudly and wrongly used staff size and fund-raising totals to forecast Romney as the winner (it was hard not to suspect they were listening too intently to the smooth-talking sources they had known in D.C.).
The next day, Huckabee handily beat Romney by nine points in the Iowa caucus. With 14 paid full-time workers, a 25-year-old daughter serving as field director, no internal polling, and not even $2 million in the bank, Huckabee's win seemed to defy the most clinical components of campaign success: money, experience, organizational strength, and coziness with establishment insiders.
Politics, at its worst, is about deceit and manipulation, but if Romney's greenbacks and political influence could not determine the caucus outcome, then Huckabee's win seemed to affirm the power of the ordinary individual to decide the kind of man and the message they wanted to vote for. With that, a certain corner of the public imagination peeled open to expose a whole realm of possibilities: what could a campaign do with little money and a threadbare infrastructure? Did this mean ordinary contributions of only $20 could make a real difference in the campaign? Was it possible to organize successful phone banks online? In Michigan, a retired school teacher enthused to me that, after signing up on the Internet, he had received the contact information of 6,500 names for which he had recruited about a half a dozen people to call. How far could Huckabee pro-life, pro-marriage amendment, pro-Fair Tax platform fly?
If there was ever magic in politics, you could feel supporters wanting to make it work for the rest of the days on the Huckabee campaign trail.
"While many among the establishment never really believed I belonged, there were a lot of people in this country who did," Huckabee said last night. "And most importantly these are the people across this nation who gave me a voice over these past 14 months. It was their sacrifices, the sacrifices of a truck driver in Michigan, of a housewife who sold her wedding ring on eBay and gave the contribution to the campaign, a janitor in Alabama who has a wife in a wheelchair who gave $20, not out of his abundance, but out of his poverty, so that our campaign could stay on the track."
For realists, however, it was hard not to notice that even when he won, Huckabee usually lost strategically.
* He won the grassroots ground game Iowa, but he lost to an election calendar that favored money over retail politics. Huckabee was a casualty of a compressed primary schedule, which increased the influence of expensive ads and decreased the currency of Huckabee's best asset – his ability to connect with people in his speeches. "The best closer I ever met," Iowa campaign manager Eric Woolson said when asked why he signed up for his candidate before anyone else ever did. If Huckabee just had another week to meet people, South Carolina Co-Chair David Beasely lamented, Huckabee should have won South Carolina.
* Another strategic blow against Huckabee: He may have captured most of the Southern primaries on February 5, but only those that awarded proportionate delegates. Huckabee clinched Georgia, which had more total delegates (69) up for grabs than Florida (57). But Huckabee only ended up with 54 delegates from that state – just two more delegates than what McCain won in the winner-take-all state of New Jersey (52). The Republican primary system seemed to lay an uncanny amount of groundwork for the New Hampshire winner or a Northeast sympathizer– namely McCain, Romney, or Giuliani – to have a straight shot at early primary success. It was never clear why New York had 101 winner-take-all delegates when Georgia had only 69 proportionate ones.
(As a side note: If Huckabee could have foreseen the uphill battle for delegates, he could not have predicted that the forces of weather would conspire against him as well. On Super Tuesday, tornado activity sideswiped the only winner-take-all state Huckabee visited in the days before February 5th: Missouri. It whistled right along the border between Arkansas and Missouri, where McCain edged him out, 33 percent to 31.6 percent, to win all 58 delegates. Bad weather also petrified the streets of northwest South Carolina on primary day, heavily factoring into his 3-point loss in the state. Key states, no providential intervention. For a man who believed in miracles, luck was hardly ever by his side.)
* Huckabee may have had the reputation as a media darling who frequented cable news shows and comedy shows alike, but that didn't help him get more time at the debates, which the underfinanced candidate needed more than any other viable one. The final GOP debate at the Reagan Library, in which Huckabee sat at the far end of the table while Romney and McCain squabbled next to CNN's Anderson Cooper, crystallized a trend in the way Huckabee was contextualized and came off at the forums: almost always a sideshow, rarely center stage. By the time Huckabee proved he was a viable candidate on Super Tuesday, the nominee had already been anointed.
* Finally, even if Huckabee outlasted most his opponents, he took a serious hit from each before they left. Fred Thompson dropped out only after he undermined a potential Huckabee win in South Carolina. Rudy Giuliani left after placing third in Florida, denying Huckabee the possibility of a surprise finish and much needed momentum boost following his devastating loss in SC. Romney dropped out too, but not before splitting the social conservative vote on Super Tuesday. Only Sam Brownback's withdrawal put some wind behind Huckabee's back going into the Value Voters summit in D.C.
Straight-shooting campaign chair Ed Rollins, who joined Huckabee's staff in the middle of December, often remarked that the campaign he had signed up for was more tactical than strategic. With no internal polling numbers, no micro targeting strategies, no secret deals under the table, rarely an endorsement worth talking about, Huckabee's bite-sized army scrambled to keep the events running and the candidate up on the national radar. In this way, the Huckabee press corp often felt it shared with the campaign staff the same bizarre perspective of a mouse stuck-in-maze. (For reporters who were spoiled by other campaigns and joined Huckabee late in the game, they were usually stunned by the campaign's lack of planning. It's like guerilla warfare, I told them: expect no schedules more than 24 hours ahead of time, feel lucky if the sound box works, anticipate that no spots will be saved for your tripods, treat all non-speech events like obstacle courses since there aren't enough advance men to plot your path through the crowds…)
Huckabee was certainly not a perfect candidate and his campaign had its fair share of mistakes. He shot from the hip on foreign policy; he could have used some finesse in international affairs. He tried to be both compassionate and stern about illegal immigration, criticizing McCain's Senate immigration bill as a presidential candidate even though he supported it as a governor. He was a little dodgy when it came to Mitt Romney's Mormonism. He could have used some more gravitas.
To stay in the race and speak to his base, he aired the "religious leader" ad at a rate that may have compromised his crossover appeal on matters such as health, education, and the economy.
The Huckabee campaign never fully recovered from South Carolina. Perhaps Huckabee could have won Palmetto State if he had not gone to Michigan and underestimated Fred Thompson, but whatever the case, a 3-point loss was still a loss that a focused campaign should have won. (To be fair, however, the campaign was just starting to drop phone lines in the South Carolina campaign offices when the New Hampshire primary ended. They could only do so much with 30 people.)
Whether or not the universe had conspired against him, what made Huckabee a remarkable candidate to follow was that in spite of these long odds, he prevailed anyway. Even when it was mathematically impossible, even though miracles had proved few and far between, Huckabee remained.
"One of the questions I get asked everyday…is why do you keep going?" Huckabee said after losing Wisconsin. "And I know that's a question [to which] people try to come up with their own answers. And some have even suggested the reason I keep going is maybe just some ego trip. Let me assure you, if it were ego, my ego doesn't enjoy getting these kind of evenings where we don't win the primary elections. So, it's gotta be something other than that, and it is. It's about convictions, it's about principles that I dearly, dearly believe in."
For that, you couldn't help but respect the guy. With too much strategy and not enough heart, a campaign can become smaller than the amount of energy invested in it. What Huckabee seemed to do was prove the inverse true: that a campaign with a lot of heart and not much strategy could seem bigger than it would ever become.