Sabato's Crystal Ball

Rooted in “Hope”

Bill Clinton and Mike Huckabee

Rhodes Cook, Senior Columnist January 3rd, 2008

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It may not be that unusual for a large state to produce a pair of major presidential candidates within a generation, but for a small town to do so is astounding. That is the case with Hope, Arkansas, which is the birthplace of two modern-day White House aspirants–Bill Clinton and Mike Huckabee.

Clinton, of course, was elected president in the 1990s. Huckabee has the same goal this year, with the Iowa caucuses today (Jan. 3) a critical opening test.

Hope would appear an unlikely place to launch two presidential candidates. It lies quietly along Interstate 30 between Little Rock and Texarkana, has a population of barely 10,000, and merits nary a mention in the American Automobile Association (AAA) guidebook of places to visit in Arkansas.

Probably Hope’s most memorable feature is its old train depot, featured prominently in a 1992 Bill Clinton campaign video. And if one listens to Clinton and Huckabee, each was born on the wrong side of the tracks.

Yet both were able to transcend their modest beginnings, climb the political ladder, and prepare for the national stage by showing themselves to be formidable vote-getters in Arkansas.

To be sure, there are some clear differences between Hope’s most prominent natives. Clinton is a Democrat; Huckabee a Republican in a state where it is still an uphill fight for GOP candidates. Clinton is an Ivy League graduate and Rhodes Scholar; Huckabee has a bachelor’s degree from a small Baptist college in Arkansas. Clinton launched his first political campaign from the faculty of the University of Arkansas Law School. Huckabee initially went into the ministry, rising to the presidency of the Arkansas Southern Baptist Convention.

But in many respects, they are cut from the same cloth. Both are born politicians–gifted orators with a bent for story-telling and music. Clinton famously likes to riff on the saxophone; Huckabee on the bass guitar.

In spite of their political success, neither has been invincible. Each took on a popular incumbent in his first bid for office, and lost–Clinton, to veteran Republican Rep. John Paul Hammerschmidt in 1974; Huckabee to Democratic Sen. Dale Bumpers in 1992. But both quickly followed their losing debut with a successful run for a lower state office–Clinton for attorney general, Huckabee for lieutenant governor–that served as a springboard for each to the Arkansas governorship.


Figure 1. Bill and Huck: Climbing Arkansas’ Political Ladder

Bill Clinton and Mike Huckabee are not only the most famous natives of Hope, Arkansas, but they have made similar climbs up the state’s political ladder. Each lost their first bid for public office and each served multiple terms as governor before making their first run for president. An asterisk (*) indicates a special election; a pound sign (#) denotes Huckabee’s present age. (He was born on Aug. 24, 1955, almost nine years after Bill Clinton.)

BILL CLINTON MIKE HUCKABEE
Election Age Office Sought Result Election Age Office Sought Result
1974 28 U.S. House Lost 1992 37 U.S. Senator Lost
1976 30 AR Attorney General Won 1993* 38 AR Lt. Governor Won
1978 32 AR Governor Won 1998 43 AR Governor Won
1980 34 AR Governor Lost 2002 47 AR Governor Won
1982 36 AR Governor Won 2008 52# President ?
1984 38 AR Governor Won
1986 40 AR Governor Won
1990 44 AR Governor Won
1992 46 President Won
1996 50 President Won

Source: CQ’s Politics in America (CQ Press).


Both have had their share of ethics questions. Clinton’s have ranged from womanizing to problematic land deals; Huckabee’s have taken the form of controversy in the commutation of prison sentences and the repeated acceptance of lavish gifts from supporters.

Both men are part of a potent political couple, married to strong-willed women who have nurtured political ambitions of their own. Hillary Clinton’s are already on their way to being realized, as she holds a Senate seat from New York and is in the midst of a presidential campaign in which she is the Democratic front-runner. On the other hand, Janet Huckabee’s most visible bid for elective office ended with a thud, as she lost a race for Arkansas secretary of state in 2002.

That race came in the same year that her husband was running for governor, and the dual Huckabee campaigns were seen as a drag on his own bid for reelection. He won, but his 53 percent share of the vote was 7 percentage points lower than his previous gubernatorial victory in 1998.

Yet Clinton’s last gubernatorial race in 1990 saw him on the downswing as well. He approached it with an evident lack of enthusiasm. With a presidential campaign in his sights, Clinton admitted that “the fire of an election (in Arkansas) no longer burns in me.” His winning percentage dropped to 57 percent in 1990, fully 6 points below his previous gubernatorial showing four years earlier.

Yet their final gubernatorial races did give both Clinton and Huckabee one last chance to show their broad vote-getting appeal on the Arkansas stage. Clinton carried more than 40 counties in 1990 that Republican presidential candidate George H.W. Bush had won in sweeping Arkansas two years earlier. Huckabee won more than 30 counties in 2002 that Clinton had swept as the successful Democratic national standard-bearer in 1992 and 1996. Many of the counties carried by both Huckabee and Clinton were rural ones, dotted with small towns not much different than Hope.


Figure 2. Pat Robertson’s Iowa “14”

Probably the most cited model for Mike Huckabee in today’s Iowa voting is televangelist Pat Robertson. But to win the state’s Republican caucuses, Huckabee will have to improve on Robertson’s second-place finish in 1988, when he took 25 percent of the GOP caucus vote and carried 14 counties. Bob Dole won Iowa that year, while the eventual Republican nominee, George H.W. Bush, finished third and failed to carry even one of Iowa’s 99 counties.

Counties carried by Pat Robertson in 1988 Iowa Republican caucuses
Allamakee Jefferson
Clinton Lee
Davis Mahaska
Des Moines Page
Dubuque Shelby
Hancock Union
Jackson Wapello


Building on the Robertson Model

Huckabee is hopeful that he can demonstrate a similar vote-getting success this year, mounting an inclusive campaign that garners the support of evangelical and secular voters alike. Yet so far, his presidential bid has been compared less to Clinton, who was able to do just that, than Pat Robertson, the Virginia Beach televangelist who enjoyed mixed success in his 1988 run for the Republican nomination.

With his ardent band of socially conservative supporters, Robertson ran quite well in 1988 in the caucus states, where a few votes can go a long way. He won first-round caucus action in Alaska, Hawaii and Washington, and finished a strong second in Iowa with 25 percent of the vote. Of Iowa’s 99 counties, Robertson carried 14, a mix of rural Republican counties and Democratic-oriented ones along the Mississippi River from Lee (Keokuk) north to Dubuque.

But Robertson bombed in the primaries, where turnouts are much larger. He not only failed to carry a single primary state, but did not come close to winning any of them. In New Hampshire (which votes next Tuesday, Jan. 8), Robertson drew only 9 percent of the Republican primary vote; in Florida (which holds a primary Jan. 29), he received just 11 percent. Even in South Carolina, arguably part of the Southern “Bible Belt,” he won just 19 percent. (South Carolina’s Republican primary this year is on Jan. 19.)

Exit polls for the 1988 Iowa Republican caucuses showed that roughly two-thirds of Robertson’s support came from evangelicals. The challenge for Huckabee in Iowa and the contests beyond will be to hold a large share of the evangelical vote while building on this base to include a large array of non-evangelical voters as well. His ability to do so will determine whether Huckabee is the latest incarnation of Pat Robertson, or the second president in a decade to hail from “a place called Hope.”


Figure 3. Pat Robertson: Where He Ran Best in 1988

As a presidential candidate, televangelist Pat Robertson is a dubious role model for Mike Huckabee. Robertson drew more than 1 million votes in the 1988 Republican presidential primaries but failed to carry a single primary state. His three victories came in caucus states, where turnout was lower and his well-organized cadre of supporters could dominate.

Event Region Robertson % Outcome
Hawaii Caucuses West 81% Won
Alaska Caucuses West 47% Won
Washington Caucuses West 39% Won
Minnesota Caucuses Midwest 28% 2nd
Iowa Caucuses Midwest 25% 2nd
Michigan Caucuses Midwest 22% 2nd
Oklahoma Primary South 21% 3rd
South Dakota Primary Midwest 20% 2nd
South Carolina Primary South 19% 3rd
Arkansas Primary South 19% 3rd
Louisiana Primary South 18% 2nd
Georgia Primary South 16% 3rd
Texas Primary South 15% 2nd

Source: Congressional Quarterly Weekly Report, Aug. 13, 1988, pp. 2254-2255.