Could Mike Huckabee Be a Compassionate Crusader?
Joseph Wonderlich and Aubrey Immelman
February 4, 2008
When tomorrow’s Super Tuesday votes are counted, we will know if presidential candidate Mike Huckabee has what it takes to win the hearts and minds of Republican voters. But whether he succeeds or not, there’s no denying his rise to top-tier status has been nothing short of meteoric, coming from seemingly nowhere to edge out early front-runner Mitt Romney in Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses early last month.
That raises the question: What is it about this former Southern Baptist preacher and former governor of a small southern state that gave him broad enough appeal to become a serious contender?
As is often the case when a candidate fires up the public imagination — or flames out, as in the case of Rudy Giuliani — part of the answer can be found in personality: enduring personal traits and attributes that remain relatively constant over time, drive a person’s behavior across a broad range of situations, and color people’s perceptions of that person.
To gain a better understanding of this come-from-nowhere preacher-politician, we generated a personality profile using a standard assessment procedure developed at the Unit for the Study of Personality in Politics at the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University. What we found took us by surprise.
Tough . . . but kind
The affable Huckabee, instead of matching his public persona as an accommodating, outgoing personality somewhat akin to the smiling John Edwards, emerged from the assessment as a highly dominant, quite controlling personality more in the mold of tough guy Giuliani: strong-willed, commanding, and assertive.
The difference is that whereas Giuliani’s aggressiveness is practically off the charts, Huckabee’s forcefulness finds expression in more moderate measure. Moreover, it is tempered, and largely masked, by genuine congeniality — a good-natured quality sorely lacking in what seems to some to be a congenitally “Nasty Man” Giuliani, to quote the title former New York mayor Ed Koch chose for his 1999 book about Rudy Giuliani.
In personal terms, the key for Huckabee as a candidate is that beyond simply being tough, strong-willed, and determined, he is outgoing, affable, and gregarious — personality traits that help him connect with voters on a very personal level.
“The problem with Mike”
An optimistic, outgoing disposition is a strong plus in presidential campaigns. In every contest since the first televised presidential debates in 1960 — with the notable exception of Richard Nixon — the more outgoing presidential candidate without fail has won the election.
Looking at this year’s slate of candidates, Huckabee’s outgoing, extraverted nature does not distinguish him from John McCain, whose personality profile shows a similar tendency. But it strongly contrasts him from Mitt Romney, whose relative lack of outgoing qualities can be expected to create difficulty in finding traction as a candidate.
In his 2007 book Character Makes a Difference, Huckabee makes it clear that before exchanging the cross of his pastoral mission for the switchblade of political life, he had grown increasingly frustrated with the path he was on. “In my early years of ministry, I was quite idealistic, thinking that most people in the congregation expected me to be the captain of a warship leading God’s troops into battle.” But “as the years passed,” Huckabee wrote, “I became increasingly convinced that most people wanted me to captain the Love Boat.”
And that, from the perspective of political psychology, is precisely “the problem with Mike.” While personality typically serves as a reliable predictor of a candidate’s likely job performance in office, it’s not at all clear to what extent a prospective President Huckabee will be driven by religious conviction rather than by ideology and ego, as high-level politicians often are.
So, how would he lead?
The Unit for the Study of Personality in Politics, in collaboration with McGill University political scientist Blema Steinberg, developed a model that maps out the links between personality and leadership style. With the caveat that Huckabee’s strong personal convictions may effectively derail personality-based political prognostication, the model offers the following clues about his likely executive style:
In office, the political behavior of dominant leaders like Huckabee is characteristically driven by a quest for power and energized by ideological fervor. However, because of his parallel outgoing, congenial tendency, Huckabee is likely to be considerably more pragmatic than a more singularly dominant leader like Giuliani — or Hillary Clinton, on the Democratic side.
In short, the significance of Huckabee’s distinctive outgoing tendency is the suggestion that he is also significantly concerned with issues of self-validation, a personal concern with public approval.
Stated differently, Huckabee is unlikely to be an authoritarian leader prone to imposing a personal agenda in defiance of deep public disapproval. In fact, his personality profile suggests that the dominant yet affable and conciliatory “Pastor Mike” has considerable potential to act as an arbitrator or consensus builder across factional and party lines.
For some, that alone would be an improvement over the incumbent, who fell short on his promise, eight years ago, to be “a uniter, not a divider.”
Note. A slightly revised version of this article was published as the “Your Turn” column “Huckabee outgoing, strong willed” in the St. Cloud Times (pp. 4-5B), Feb. 5, 2008.