Mike Huckabee’s supporters might not rush to the side of Sarah Palin, despite the conventional wisdom that she’ll be the key beneficiary of his decision not to run for president next year.
Both the former governor of Arkansas and former governor of Alaska are populist Republicans with strong evangelical credentials.
Palin’s and Huckabee’s rhetorical styles couldn’t be more different. Palin mocks her Democratic opponents; Huckabee tends to engage them and look for common ground.
When first lady Michelle Obama launched her childhood anti-obesity campaign, Huckabee welcomed her onto his Fox News show and lauded her efforts.
“She’s been criticized unfairly by a lot of my fellow conservatives. I think it’s out of a reflex, rather than out of a thoughtful expression. … We don’t have to believe that everything the other side proposes is immediately and altogether bad,” he said.
But Palin did find Michelle Obama’s anti-obesity efforts altogether bad.
“Take her anti-obesity thing that she is on: She is on this kick, right ... just leave us alone. Get off our back,” she told conservative talk radio host Laura Ingraham.
Talk show host Glenn Beck also noticed the difference between approaches and sided with Palin, telling his audience: “I think Mike Huckabee is a guy who’s had Michelle Obama on his show and said, ‘You know, your fat-kid programs are great.’ ”
Much of Huckabee’s support is generated by his personality, ethos and style, which is warm and engaging. It’s hard to imagine a primary voter who loves both Huckabee and mocking Michelle Obama. And so it’s hard to imagine Huckabee’s supporters switching from the guy who hosted Michelle Obama on his program to the gal who roasted her.
Over the past few years, Huckabee has polled stronger with women than any potential Republican prospect; Palin has polled stronger among men than women. A study of 18 state-by-state Public Policy Polling (PPP) surveys in 2010 showed Huckabee outperforming Palin among women in a majority of states.
That difference is stark in the key state of Iowa.
A recent PPP survey in that state showed Palin was 17 percent more popular with Republican men than with Republican women. And Huckabee was 28 percent more popular with GOP women than was Palin.
It could be that Huckabee’s style is responsible for much of the gender gap. His less strident message and rhetorical style might play better with women, while Palin’s bomb-throwing might appeal primarily to men.
Theoretically, then, there are doubts that Huckabee voters would easily switch to Palin’s side — for both the stylistic and gender reasons, which seem to be related.
It’s often assumed that Palin is the natural heir to Huckabee’s religious supporters. She’s spoken for numerous religious charities, hired an evangelical to ghostwrite her memoir, and has moved easily through the Christian conservative world since the 2008 election.
But an Iowa poll last month showed Palin failing to make much of a dent in the evangelical population. She actually scored twice as well among likely Republican caucus-goers who never attended church as ones who went weekly.
There’s no obvious reason why, but there are a couple possibilities. It could be that evangelicals — who value a soft answer and turning the other cheek — are offended by Palin’s sardonic sense of humor, which once turned President Obama’s “Winning the future” slogan into the acronym for an obscenity — “WTF.”
It’s also possible that stricter evangelicals resent her decision to forgo being a full-time mom to become a full-time political celebrity.
Regardless of motive, polling hasn’t yet shown Palin to be the inevitable evangelical powerhouse she’s often painted as, and once again, style and gender might interact with religion’s effect on preference. Women are more likely to be churchgoers, and churchgoers might find acerbity more unappealing — and voila, therein might lie much of the difference between Palin’s and Huckabee’s support.
In PPP’s most recent survey of Iowa, Palin’s needle moves up nearly imperceptibly without Huckabee in the race — belying all the conventional wisdom. With Huckabee in the race, she pulls in 12 percent. With him out, she brings in 15. That’s only a 3-point bump out of the 30 percent of all voters Huckabee pulled in.
In other words, Huckabee’s Iowa supporters hardly flocked to her in droves without their guy in the race.
There are many types of Huckabee voters — some of whom will undoubtedly be drawn to Palin. But there also seems to be a bloc that will prove difficult for her to win over — Huckabee’s female and more religious supporters. How ironic that the type of voter Palin would likely call herself — female, religious-conservative — might be the one that denies her the nomination.
Heinze, the founder of GOP12.com, is a member of staff at The Hill.