Huckabee may be that 'new person'

Why Mike Huckabee? Why is he rising in the polls at such an astonishing pace? And why only now? He’s been around for a year without generating much buzz, so did America just notice him? Is there any link between Huckabee’s meteoric rise and the seemingly parallel surge in support for Barack Obama on the Democratic side of the ledger? Proper answers to these questions should frighten incumbents everywhere and at every level because I think they suggest we are on the verge of a wave of change unparalleled since the elections of 1994.

The key to Huckabee’s movement in the polls is that he’s become, in the words of a standard campaign poll question, the “new person” who might do better. I’m referring to the “deserves reelection” question that’s a stock and trade of political pollsters. While few of the media-sponsored polls ask this question, The Wall Street Journal’s polling, directed by insiders Peter Hart and Bill McInturff, does. They last asked it last in early November and found that only 39 percent of Americans thought their own congressman deserves reelection while 51 percent said “it’s time to give a new person a chance.” In our own private polls, the sentiment for new blood is growing steadily in all sorts of races everywhere.

To understand Huckabee’s appeal, simply scan the Republican field and you see why the voter seeking newness has turned his way. Just as a casting director seeking to choose a perfect “traditional” president would pick someone who looks like Mitt Romney — big, strong, Hollywood handsome — the voter looking for the anti-hero, the different sort of president, doesn’t value these traditionally appealing attributes.

Huckabee, to my reptilian eye, looks younger than his competitors. This is a critical factor in his sense of his being the new one. But while Huckabee is seemingly younger, he’s not too junior to be considered sufficiently seasoned to be president. This is an important distinction from Obama. The Illinois senator may appear too young in the eyes of some voters.

Huckabee communicates newness in other subconscious ways. His words and manner on the campaign trail seem slightly different from a traditional Republican style. I cannot help but wonder whether the fact that Huckabee matriculated in politics in a nominally Democratic state like Arkansas under the tutelage of decidedly non-traditional, non-Republican consultants like Dick Morris and Dick Dresner, has influenced his political behavior in ways that voters find unique. Rather than hurting him, his sometimes awkward and unusual juxtapositions of issue stances, as on immigration issues, may add authenticity to his image of being new and different.

There’s also the fact that he’s a reverend. In the 1980s I participated in an in-depth study of attitudes toward electing a clergyman president, conducted for clients that wanted to see Pat Robertson run for the White House. In that era, America had had enough of new characters (like Jimmy Carter) and seemed to want something more traditional. And the notion of a preacher for president was off-putting. But now, at least on the Republican side, it doesn’t seem to disqualify Huckabee while it apparently adds an appealing element of uniqueness.

The question, “Why just now?” is harder to answer. Huckabee has been here the whole time but only lately caught on. Perhaps with the election year finally approaching voters have only now focused on what matters to them and are turning to the new. Perhaps candidates like Romney and Rudy Giuliani, who once seemed fresh and new, are now coming over as tired and hackneyed “candidates of the past” after a year as the front-runners.

Of course, there’s a lot of time left in this campaign and Huckabee might not seem so new and shiny after a few spins around the block.

Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.