The Republican presidential field is narrowing but with former Governor Mike Huckabee out of the race Arkansas has been left more wide-open than ever.
Improbably, Arkansas is occupying a station far above its delegate worth heading into Super Tuesday. This small state, of relative unimportance in the presidential primary scheme, is on the cusp of symbolic importance for anyone not named Trump. Wins are just that hard to come by for Rubio, Cruz, Carson, and Kasich.
“Everybody’s looking for victories where they can find them and looking for a place they might break through,” says political scientist Hal Bass. “Given Trump’s apparent lead in most places if you can find a battleground where he doesn’t seem to have as much traction it makes sense to go fight on that battleground.”
Bass at Ouachita Baptist University says Arkansas is having a busy primary season. Ted Cruz, Donald Trump, and Marco Rubio all polled within in a few percentage points in the state earlier this month. Cruz won Iowa but Trump has taken every contest handily since then. Trump, Rubio and Ben Carson have all campaigned here several times.
The dynamics in Arkansas are much the same as elsewhere, says Bass, with a battle of bluster and bravado taking the place of policy discussions.
“In Trump’s case it is very much all about him and contrasting himself and his personal appeal to the opposition. Policies don’t seem to be as important as personality,” says Bass.
And in an interview with NPR last week Governor Asa Hutchinson criticized Trump – the national GOP front runner - for just that.
“I do not see his discussion of issues as serious. The words are frightening. How you’re going to build a wall? How you’re going to have Mexico pay for it? What does this mean?”
Hutchinson, and most of the state’s top Republicans, back Rubio. That scene of establishment Republicans looking for a candidate to coalesce around to stop Trump is now familiar - and so far failing. It’s something Trump’s campaign welcomes says spokesperson Katrina Pierson.
“The politicians should be afraid. They’re the ones that are scared, and they’re the ones that are afraid, and they’re just projecting that onto the public,” says Pierson.
She says Trump does offer serious solutions.
“What are we going to do at the border folks? Build a wall [call and response],” said Trump to around 9,000 people in Little Rock earlier this year.
Pierson: Just because he’s saying Mexico’s going to pay for it, he’s not saying the president of Mexico is going to sign a check. He’s saying that they’re either going to help build the wall or we’re going to build the wall with the resources we’re giving them.
Kauffman: But that’s still our money if it’s resources we’re giving them, right?
Pierson: Absolutely, but the idea is it can be done and it will be done.
Curtailing immigration, mass scale deportations, a less sensitive attitude, making good deals and a shift in trade policy against NAFTA and goals like the Trans Pacific Partnership are on Trump’s mind when he talks to voters – with an unorthodox comment for a presidential candidate usually close behind….but not this time.
Ted Cruz, the U.S. Senator from Texas, has embraced on the campaign trail the characterization of being uncompromising.
“Washington despised Ronald Reagan. By the way, if you see a candidate who Washington embraces run and hide,” said Cruz at a Little Rock rally last year.
State Representative Bob Ballinger, who chairs Cruz’s Arkansas team, says it’s not necessarily a bad quality.
“At what point do you compromise from the truth and on fundamental values. At the same time he has demonstrated his ability to build a team and get things accomplished,” says Ballinger.
Ballinger also points to Cruz’s religious focus and disdain for the President as particularly appealing to Arkansas conservatives. Ballinger led the effort on the state’s religious freedom and restoration act, tied to issues of religious and LGBT rights.
Ben Carson, the retired neurosurgeon, talks a great deal about his personal life growing up in poverty.
“We were so excited to be able to go to the state fair but there was never any money to get on any of the rides or buy popcorn. I never tasted cotton candy until I was an adult – and it wasn’t that good,” Carson said to around 1,000 Arkansans last fall.
He generally calls for more limited government, referencing heavily the Founding Fathers, and reducing access to welfare benefits.
Ohio Governor John Kasich is the only candidate left in the field to have not campaigned in Arkansas. He doesn’t have an Arkansas campaign apparatus, but Ken Yang of Benton has worked for the campaign in several other states. He says the lack of Arkansas focus shouldn’t discourage voters who want a return to the budgets Kasich helped produce in the mid-90s in Congress.
“This idea that we’re going to vote that we think may or may not win when we listen to the media is just kind of baloney. Governor Kasich is doing well in polling in Ohio but then you look at Senator Marco Rubio who has been down 28 percentage points to Donald Trump in his home state,” said Yang who works outside of the campaign with evangelicals in the state through the Family Council.
The stakes may be highest in Arkansas for Rubio. He has the top-caliber political endorsements, the support of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, and is making last minute stops in Arkansas. Rubio says he, unlike Kasich, can unify the party.
“The Democrats know this, they attack me more than any other Republican in this race, because they know that if I’m our nominee we win. Why? Because number one, I’m going to unify this part,” said Rubio to a packed room in Little Rock the weekend before the primary.
Rubio’s state chair, State Senator Bart Hester, says the candidate’s promotion of Christianity and free market economics is key to his support. He thinks Rubio can unify the party but it doesn’t mean he’s weak on conservative issues.
“Just because of the sheer fact that he’s reasonable, and he’s not just spitting hate every day, people want to quantify him as the establishment candidate. But he is anything but, he is still the Marco Rubio that the Tea Party supported and got into office in Florida,” says Hester who has championed issues near and dear to conservative evangelicals in the state legislature.
It remains to be seen if Arkansas Republican voters will unify around any one candidate and whether the state’s elected officials have overplayed their hands. In any event, the winner won’t take all, with delegates in Arkansas allocated proportionally. The afterglow of election night will fade too, with much bigger contests down the pike.