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A Cop-Killer’s Impact on 2012

Our deepest sympathies to the families of the four police officers — Mark Renninger, Ronald Owens, Tina Griswold, and Greg Richardson — who were brutally slain over the weekend by a felon named Maurice Clemmons. The story has taken on political dimensions with the revelation that Clemmons received clemency from then-Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee in 2000. Although the facts of the case are somewhat complicated — Clemmons had received a 108-year sentence for offenses committed as a teenager, and after leaving Arkaansas, had subsequently fallen out of the grasp of the Washington State criminal justice system — there are nevertheless a lot of fingers pointed at Huckabee.

What impact could the tragedy have on Huckabee’s political future? I had previously developed a qualitative battery of questions, known as the EMPSCAT, which I periodically apply to matters such as these. The test, although hardly authoritative, suggests that the incident could indeed cause some damage to Huckabee’s prospects.

1. Can the scandal be reduced to a one-sentence soundbyte (but not easily refuted/denied with a one-sentence soundbyte)?

Obviously yes. “Mike Huckabee released this scary black[**] dude from prison, and he went off and shot four police officers.” This story has a visceral, human connection that will be hard for Huckabee to rebut, notwithstanding that the facts of the case are somewhat more complicated. And it’s anyone’s guess as to which of Huckabee’s Republican opponents would be the first to use the Clemmons killings in a 30-second spot on the eve of a critical primary.

2. Does the scandal cut against a core element of the candidate’s brand?

Not in the sense that it makes Huckabee look disingenuous or hypocritical — which is what this question is generally getting at — but in other ways it causes problems. Huckabee’s brand is essentially that of the authentically compassionate conservative (that is not intended to sound ironic). But in the context of a Republican primary, his opponents will try to twist that theme into a negative, implying that Huckabee’s “compassion” makes him a pushover, a rube, or (gasp!) perhaps even something of a closet liberal. In other words, Huckabee’s opponents will try to cast him as “bleeding-heart conservative”, rather than “compassionate conservative”. The Clemmons case makes this line of attack considerably more challenging for Huckabee.

3. Does the scandal reify/reinforce/”prove” a core negative perception about the candidate, particularly one that had henceforth been difficult to articulate (but not one that has become so entrenched that little further damage can be done)?

See above — Huckabee is already a candidate whose positives are also his negatives, and this incident tends to exacerbate that. Also, since there have been questions about some of Huckabee’s previous pardons — particularly that of the rapist Wayne DuMond — people will assert that there’s a pattern here.

4. Can the scandal readily be employed by the opposition, without their looking hypocritical/petty/politically incorrect, risking retribution, or giving life to a damaging counter-narrative?

In the context of a Republican primary, probably yes, unless one of Huckabee’s opponents — most of whom will also be ex-governors — have similar skeletons in the closet. Particularly since the issue is (ostensibly) not a personal, ad-hominem attack, but rather a direct and tangible indictment of his competency as his state’s chief executive, it can probably be used somewhat liberally by his opponents (although they’ll need to be somewhat sensitive to a perception that they’ve exploited the tragedy for political gain).

Were Huckabee to make it to the general election, the issue becomes somewhat dicier, as Democrats could look hypocritical for trying to ‘Dukakis’ him, and the racial narrative lurking beneath the surface of the Clemmons case might be riskier for an African-American candidate to employ. But Huckabee, obviously, needs to get through the nomination process first.

5. Is the media bored, and/or does the story have enough tabloid/shock value to crowd out all other stories?

This question is more intended for when a scandal develops during the heat of a campaign, and not during the long, cold war that precedes it. For the time being, the story has received a moderate, but not overwhelming, amount of attention. More importantly, it has enough tabloid value that it can be probably counted on to re-surface at some point during the primary campaign. If Huckabee is lucky, this would happen in a controlled setting such as during a debate — in which case he’ll have two years to start preparing his rebuttal. If he’s unlucky, it will be at the behest of one of his opponents, perhaps as a result of additional facts uncovered by opposition research, and will be deployed (such as through a leak to Drudge or Politico) at a time when it might do maximum damage.


In summary, I think this is in fact somewhat damaging to Huckabee, and could tangibly affect his odds of winning the 2012 nomination. It might also impact his desire to run for office. Over the winter, I had heard from a reasonably well-connected insider that Hucakbee was somewhat more likely to wait until 2016 to run, and Huckabee himself had recently claimed to be leaning against a 2012 bid. The 2016 race, indeed, could be a better bet for Huckabee on several levels: he won’t have to run against an incumbent; Sarah Palin will probably have burned herself out; the current, strongly libertarian brand of economic populism (which does not play to Huckabee’s more communitarian leanings) is liable to have faded, and the impact of the Clemmons killings, such as it is, may be somewhat diminished.

Something else which the incident not so much caused but revealed is that Huckabee is not particularly well-liked in the conservative blogopshere; many of the blogs were perfectly happy to throw him under the bus. Although Huckabee’s part of the Republican base does not overlap heavily with the well-educated and well-informed blog-reading crowd, the blogs are nevertheless important players in shaping the narrative about a candidate, and so could cause some ‘trickle-down’ damage to his chances.

Increasingly, I tend to see the 2012 nomination fight as one between Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin, and X, where X is somebody who may not be receiving a lot of attention right now (not someone like Tim Pawlenty or Newt Gingirch, who receive more than their fair share, and who are satellites in the Romney and Palin orbits, respectively). Huckabee’s odds have fallen from about 11 percent to 8 percent over at Intrade, which feels like a reasonable assessment.

[**] I certainly do not mean to imply that the Huckabee’s critics have intentionally or unintentionally played up the racial elements of this case (they categorically haven’t). But the fact is that to a certain part of the electorate, race and crime are intimately linked, and the fact that Clemmons is black and killed four white police officers will give the matter some additional resonance with them. Needless to say, we are not a color-blind nation.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.