If you listen to the rhetoric from the GOP elite in Washington, Republicans view immigration as an unquestioned asset, support free trade agreements, and believe entitlement reform is necessary to get the country's fiscal house in order. But those reformist positions embraced by party leaders threaten to alienate a significant constituency within the Republican party, one that has been growing in recent years. That populist faction of the party—call it the Huckabee wing—is one that Republicans are overlooking at their own peril.
Indeed, what's most notable about Mike Huckabee's presidential launch is that he hasn't bought into any of the conventional GOP positions on those issues—and instead is using his populist bona fides as a weapon to separate himself from the opposition. He slammed free trade agreements for reducing the cost of wages, saying he'd "like to think the U.S. government would stand up for the U.S. workers rather than let them take it in the backside." In his kickoff speech, he pledged to prevent politicians from rolling back popular Social Security and Medicare benefits. After Clinton's embrace of liberalized immigration policies, Huckabee called her "absolutely wrong" and emphasized his tough stance on border security. And the overall anti-Washington tenor of his message—even calling on candidates who hold public office to resign their seats to run for president—suggest that he'll be a force to be reckoned with in the GOP nomination fight.
It's this heterodoxy that drives fiscal conservatives, such as the Club for Growth, batty. The Club has taken the unusual step to spend $100,000 in Iowa and South Carolina to blast Huckabee over his record raising taxes in Arkansas. And many Republicans dismiss his chances of contending in a crowded Republican field, citing his financial disadvantages and smaller campaign organization.
But when it comes to winning over disaffected voters that make up a growing share of the Republican party, Huckabee's message is poised to resonate. Huckabee's positions may be dismissed by liberals and conservatives alike, but they're representative of a significant chunk of the electorate. He starts out with 11 percent of the Iowa caucus vote, according to this month's Quinnipiac poll, holding more than double the support of Jeb Bush. As FiveThirtyEight noted this week, his average net favorability in all the national, live-caller polls this year is stronger than any other candidate.
Public polling shows that the populist sentiment within the Republican party is rising, and is ripe for the picking from a candidate willing to exploit it. As Democrats have shed many of its working-class supporters during the Obama administration, many of them have found a home with the Republicans—and given the party a more blue-collar flavor.
In reality, Huckabee's positioning on divisive issues is actually in line with a majority of the Republican party. Among the Republican base, Pew found that more than half of its core voters are "socially conservative populists" skeptical of immigration reform. A NBC/Wall Street Journal poll shows just 33 percent of Republicans believe "free trade hurts more than it helps"—10 points lower than the share of Democrats who hold pro-free trade views. And 62 percent of Republicans prioritized "keeping Social Security and Medicare benefits at their current levels" over "taking steps to reduce the budget deficit" in a December 2013 Pew survey. Even most self-described tea-party supporters don't want their benefits taken away.
The biggest challenge for Huckabee is whether he can appeal to a wider swath of voters than simply the socially-conservative evangelicals that make up his political base. His message is broadly populist, but of the seven states he carried in the 2008 nominating fight, five were in the deep South. Less religious working-class voters who would be most receptive to his economic message might be turned off by the moralistic tone of his speeches. And he faces more competition from social conservatives than he did in 2008, with Ted Cruz, Ben Carson, Rick Santorum, and even Scott Walker making a play for those voters.
The key to his success is playing up his differences with the competition on fiscal issues, which truly distinguishes himself from nearly all of his rivals. Walker is betting that his hard line on big labor will endear him to all Republican voters, but union-bashing isn't an inherent political winner across the GOP, especially among its working-class constituency. And unlike Rand Paul, who has been forced to play down his heterodox views on national security because of the GOP's hawkish roots, Huckabee's economic populism is responding to an untapped market within the Republican party. His ripostes against free trade and immigration reform have the potential to resonate beyond the South, if he runs a more disciplined race than eight years ago.
So much attention has been paid to the candidates' fundraising, making it easy to miss the power of certain candidates' messages. It's why Jeb Bush's formidable fundraising hasn't translated into widespread public support. It's why Marco Rubio's compelling personal biography as the son of Cuban-American immigrants helped propel him into the first tier of contenders. And it's why Scott Walker's own blue-collar background has made him an early conservative favorite.
For Huckabee, being seen as a credible working-class champion is what will make or break his campaign. If his message resonates, it's a lot easier to find someone to bankroll a campaign than it was eight years ago. And if he can find his own wealthy patron to support him—like Rick Santorum achieved with Foster Freiss in 2012—his path to the nomination isn't quite as far-fetched as the conventional wisdom has it.