April showers must bring May Republican presidential announcements… or something like that. Three White House hopefuls have tossed their hat in the ring in just two days: Carly Fiorina and Ben Carson on Monday, and Mike Huckabee today. Let’s take a look at whether they actually have a chance, or if they’re just one of many in the ever-expanding GOP field:
Republican voters wanting a dose of that old-time religion in their politics has a familiar old candidate back in the race in 2016. Mike Huckabee announced in his (and Bill Clinton’s) hometown of Hope, Arkansas this morning. In many ways he’s still the old Huckabee that turned into a formidable 2008 candidate beloved by evangelical voters. The former baptist preacher remains one of the best orators in the field. He easily wove constant references to his faith in his announcement. And he connects well with audiences with a folksy, good-humored charm.
But there’s also the new Huckabee. He’s lived the good life in the years since his 2008 run, raking in money while hosting a show on Fox News. His fundraising emails make ridiculous appeals to the most paranoid right-wingers to pull in cash. Spending most of his time sitting in a conservative echo chamber may have prepared him well for knowing what the base wants to hear this time. It also makes you wonder if he’s gotten comfortable with the celebrity and money-making life. And a few peculiar elements from the entertainment industry and reality TV seeped into Huckabee’s campaign kick-off rally this morning, with singer Tony Orlando MC-ing the event while members of the Duggar family sat in the audience.
I see Huckabee as the evangelical base’s security blanket. A lot of new candidates are vying for the Christian right’s vote, including Santorum, Jindal, Perry, Walker and Cruz. If enough doubts are raised about those contenders, look for evangelicals to return to the guy they know and trust. But even if they do, what does Huckabee do after that? How does he avoid a repeat of 2008 where he won Iowa, but struggled to gain traction nationally and financially afterwards? He’s a repeat candidate in a year full of fresh faces. I just don’t see how he puts together a winning coalition. So that begs the question: Is he looking to expand his base or his viewership? Count me as skeptical right now on Huckabee’s true intentions in this race.
I actually believe Fiorina could be the one to surprise. Whenever I bring her name up around Democrats, they roll their eyes and recount her layoffs and failures as CEO of Hewlett-Packard. They must not have seen her speak in person to Republican audiences in Iowa, because she’s exciting the GOP base like few others. The negative HP talking points hasn’t permeated the caucus-going crowd, who see her as a successful executive and businesswoman. Last cycle multiple candidates had their boom-lets at different times. If she gets hers right around the caucus she could become one of the top legitimate candidates. She has negatives yet to be amplified, but she’s a much more serious candidate than boom-then-bust people like Michelle Bachmann and Hermann Cain were last time.
Her biggest appeal right now is her willingness to rip into Hillary Clinton at every opportunity. In fact, she seems happy to build her entire campaign around being the not-Hillary woman in the race. Her announcement video literally starts off with her turning off Clinton’s announcement video. She calls for an end to “identity politics” and encourages people to “stand up to the political class.” Notably she says nothing of the economy, nothing of American foreign policy, nothing of her own background, and nothing of her plans for the country. Apparently beating Hillary Clinton will solve all the world’s problems.
Her speeches have obviously contained much more substance, but even those are often packed with frequent attacks on Clinton too. That’s all well and good, and she may have smartly realized what will get her noticed in a crowded field. Many speculate she’s in the race for the Vice Presidency spot or a cabinet position. VP nominees are often tasked as the attack dog, and she’s clearly winning that audition. But if she catches fire down the stretch she’ll need to expand her message considerably. I strongly believe Fiorina is the second-most interesting Republican candidate to keep an eye on (Rubio being first).
Beware a candidate with a campaign bus. At least one with it this early. That’s how Ben Carson rolled into Des Moines this morning, the day after he announced in an… interesting rally on Monday. His kick-off was quite the spectacle. Held at Detroit’s Music City Hall, a gospel choir sang Eminem’s “Lose Yourself,” which was followed by a number of other musical renditions. The theatrics are becoming a theme in Carson’s approach, which makes me doubt his ability to put together a competent campaign.
Carson skyrocketed to fame amongst the Fox News crowd after giving a blistering National Prayer Breakfast speech in 2013 against Obamacare while President Obama was sitting right by him. Famous for his medical practice before that, Carson saw an opportunity to run for president. For months in late 2014 he sat atop polls for the Republican primary. But he failed to capitalize on the momentum. Instead of visiting the early states to lock in supporters while he was hot, Carson stuck to national TV interviews, missing out on his moment. This isn’t the first time a national candidate has seen the bright lights and chosen the fancy campaign lifestyle over the hardworking one (i.e. compare Bachmann to Santorum’s campaigns in 2012).
Carson is a compelling speaker and has an inspiring personal story. It’s possible for candidates who peaked once already to get a second wind. And his slump back down in the polls may be a blessing in disguise, giving him time to fine-tune his message and get used to media questioning. Keeping momentum going, however, requires campaign discipline. His most useful asset – that he’s not a politician – is also his biggest weakness in this regards. So I wonder if he’s learned his lesson yet about taking the initiative and running a real campaign. His use of a fancy campaign bus for a day and a half worth of events in Iowa suggests not.
by Pat Rynard
Picture of Ben Carson by Gage Skidmore