Mike Huckabee’s surge is tightening the Republican race. But look closely at the numbers and you see that none of the other campaigns are collapsing. Sure, Huckabee is hurting some competitors, but everyone is hanging in there. This race could go to a brokered convention.
Winners of splintered races like this must develop a distinctive base of support, a slice of the electorate that can be cordoned off from poacher competitors. That’s the base Huckabee is developing with the religious right. Finally, evangelicals have their horse and he’s ready to take them for a ride. While Huckabee will eventually have to build upon this base and add secular supporters, he shouldn’t be in too big a hurry to do so. Solidifying and stabilizing his base is enough to do for now. This actually represents a break for Huckabee, who doesn’t have the budget or staff resources to contest the election on all fronts. By focusing mostly on consolidating his base, he can shepherd his scarce resources. When the time arrives that candidates without a political base start to falter, Huckabee will be positioned to pick up staff and funders from the losers.
When I refer to having “a base,” I operationally define that as a portion of the electorate that can be readily solicited by ordinary channels of communications like direct mail, telephone, radio or TV. The religious right qualifies as a base because it is targetable through churches, specialized direct-mail and telephone lists and Christian radio. The religious right movement is so institutionalized and has been around so long these means of communication are extant. Compare this with a faux base built around an issue like immigration. There is no straightforward way to communicate with the 15 to 20 percent or so of Republicans who consider this the most critical issue in the election. So if my base is “immigration Republicans,” there is no efficient and cost-effective means of communicating with them. So it’s not really a suitable base. Few issues are solid base-builders.
I’d put my money in this race on candidates who seem to understand the importance of base, the candidates who evidence some thoughtful focus on a manageable slice of the electorate to buttress their candidacy against the coming attacks from all sides. Start with John McCainJohn McCainEx-Bush aide Nicolle Wallace to host MSNBC show Meghan McCain: Obama 'a dirty capitalist like the rest of us' Top commander: Don't bet on China reining in North Korea MORE. There was every reason for McCain to have collapsed after the implosion of his campaign staff. But he’s survived. It’s because he has a solid base for a safety net. McCain courts older voters and veterans, particular men of the surviving Greatest Generation and the now-graying Vietnam-era crowd. By targeting mail at Republican males 60 years of age and older, advertising on the History Channel and visiting VFW and American Legion Halls, McCain has an impregnable fortress that others cannot conquer.
Fred Thompson is taking an alternative route to building his base. He’s focused on an entire region: the South. This tactic makes a lot of sense if you believe this race is in for the long haul, persisting into March and beyond. A candidate who could bring a bushel basket of Southern commitments to the convention would not have to worry about losses in Iowa and New Hampshire. The trick for Thompson will be to find a way to fend off Mike Huckabee’s entreaties to the Christian right, an important element in Southern Republican primaries and caucuses.
The bases for Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney are hardest to figure. Neither seems to have a significant demographic or regional approach to building his coalition. Above all others, these two candidates have been “all things to all people.” As the front-runners, perhaps they didn’t feel the need to establish a defined base. When the winnowing occurs, though, Giuliani and Romney will regret their lack of focus.
Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.