If you follow politics closely, you hear the same ideas repeated over and over. A common refrain repeated on cable news every few days (or hours) is: Talking Head 1: “No one can beat Hillary Clinton,” Talking Head 2: “That’s what people said in 2008. And then Obama did.” Every time I hear those statements I want to scream. (Instead I’m writing a blog post about it … thanks Patrick.)
I’m not upset because I think Hillary is unbeatable. Anyone can lose and you just never know when some skeleton is going to escape from a closet. (Or crawl out from under a wrestling mat. Hi Denny Hastert. Or when a candidate is going to start screaming like a loon and ruin everything. Hi Howard Dean.) The reason I’m upset is because comparing any of the current Democratic challengers to Barack Obama is idiotic.
Hillary Clinton is a superstar. She was in 2007/08 and she is today. Without a doubt Hillary is one of the most recognizable women in the entire world. But the thing is, by early 2007, Barack Obama was a star too. Sure, Hillary Clinton was the favorite in 2007/2008. But as soon as Barack Obama appeared at the 2004 Democratic National Convention he was labeled THE up and comer in the Democratic Party. Even those of us who didn’t support Obama during the 2007/2008 cycle thought he would be major player in Democratic politics for years to come.
I attended an Obama event in Sioux City in April of 2007, nine months before the 2008 Iowa Caucus. Obama packed the gym at Morningside College. His performance was electric and he had the full house crowd on their feet over and over again. Obama never stopped packing his events. He was able to parley his national stardom into a network of volunteers and big time online fundraising, and that was the game.
How does that compare to the current Democratic field? Well, Jim Webb was in Sioux City recently, about eight months out from the Iowa caucus. He visited a local Mexican restaurant. There were about 20 people there, about half of whom were confused about why strangers were slowing down the usual dinner service. I don’t know that Lincoln Chafee has even been to Iowa lately. If he has been, he has been in stealth mode. Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley both appear on Democratic radars … to about the same extent as Dick Gephardt in 2003/2004. People know who they are, but they don’t have any strong opinions. (Martin O’Malley recently used a crisis in his hometown to actually dim his national standing.) So my point is simple. These challengers are not stars. If they want to be the next the Barack Obama, the game is over. They lost. It’s too late. The ship has sailed. Better luck next time.
That doesn’t mean these candidates (or other potential candidates who have yet to come forward) should give up. Regardless of whether you support Hillary Clinton or not, most reasonable people think that some level of competition is important to the caucus process (and the general election). Instead, these candidates (and the talking heads on TV) need to give up on the idea of being the next Barack Obama. Instead, they should look elsewhere for inspiration. I have a humble recommendation: imitate Mike Huckabee.
Yes. I understand. Mike Huckabee is about as far from a Democrat as you can get. (Which makes the fact that both he and Bill Clinton are from the same hometown all the more astonishing.) But Mike Huckabee circa 2007 is the best example of grassroots caucus campaigning there is. His campaign started with NOTHING. No money. No name recognition. No organization. But Huckabee worked hard, worked smart, did things right and won the caucus. (I’ll grant you that no Republican challengers in 2008 had the same celebrity as Hillary Clinton. But it is not like Huckabee went head-to-head with Alan Keyes either. John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney were all extremely well known Republicans.) And the thing is, the Huckabee play book isn’t complicated.
Step 1: Get out there. Huckabee was in Iowa ALL THE TIME. Day after day. Pizza Ranch after Pizza Ranch. Huckabee campaigned like he wanted to win.
Step 2: Talk to people. I mean really talk to people, actual conversations. Mike Huckabee’s appeal was simple. Almost every single person Huckabee talked to walked away saying, “Man that Mike Huckabee is a great, funny guy.” Yes, that means the candidate will have to skip some fundraisers and occasionally stray from the approved talking points. But you can’t win without people voting for you, and you can’t get people to vote for you if they don’t know you or don’t like you. There is virtually no such thing as retail politics in national elections anymore. The exception can be the Iowa caucus. But you need to actually participate.
Step 3: Make connections. Conventional wisdom is that the Iowa Republican caucus is dominated by a monolithic evangelical voter block that decides everything, that the Bob Vander Platt’s coalition has always controlled the caucus and always will. The conventional wisdom is a ridiculous fallacy. (How ridiculous the fallacy is, is beyond the scope of this post. But the fallacy is a convenient way to explain things and stereotype, so don’t expect the media to stop repeating it any time soon.) At any rate, just bear in mind that Bob Dole won the Iowa caucus in 1996 and George Bush won in 2000, neither of whom were the most religious person in the race. So what happened? Well, to the extent there is an evangelical voting group, it was created by Mike Huckabee, for Mike Huckabee. He created it by talking to people, forming connections and getting regular Iowans excited about recruiting for him. He went church to church, group to group, and said, “if you like me, help me.”
Step 4: Develop a message that resonates. I guess this one speaks for itself. Huckabee was selling a message that Republicans wanted to buy.
That’s it. That is the secret to insurgent success. If you do those things, if you follow Mike Huckabee’s lead, you’ll start raising money, getting on TV and will have the means to build a campaign infrastructure. But that is not what the challengers are doing. They are not on the ground in Iowa enough. They are not doing enough small events where they are really getting to know people. They are not working with Democratic organizations, labor groups, and colleges to network and make real connections. And the only candidate that seems to have actually developed a message is Bernie Sanders.
So, here is my deal. Every time I hear one of these candidates say they want to be the next Obama, I’m going to roll my eyes. When I hear somebody say, “I want to be the next Mike Huckabee,” then I’ll get excited.
by Jason Winter