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What Mike Huckabee and Mel Gibson Have in Common

They're Excellent Niche Marketers

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Comparing Mike Huckabee to Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" might seem blatantly obvious as they're both big with evangelicals. But we should consider how these two became big with that audience.

Neither Huckabee nor "Passion" got any respect from the mainstream establishment. And, at first, neither received a hell of a lot of funding. Because of that, those running the marketing campaigns of both entities were forced to do an end-run around traditional approaches, skipping the high-priced ads in big markets and taking their case straight to "the people." The people, in this case, are a very specific subset of America -- evangelical Christians.

Many critics -- both film critics and others -- bashed "Passion" and its creator. Mel Gibson was some crazy ultra-orthodox Catholic, they said. His old man's anti-Semitic. The movie, they added, was anti-Semitic (conveniently overlooking the fact that the Gospels -- the source material -- were, you know, kind of anti-Semitic). Further, the movie was in Aramaic. And no one's going to line up to watch slightly wooden actors go on in Aramaic. Also, it was a gore fest and it focuses on the suffering of Christ rather than his uplifting message. And on and on and on.

Many critics -- both Republican and otherwise -- bashed Huckabee. Any in-depth look into his actual positions turns up a confusing mix of naiveté and compassionate conservatism that pretty much does away with the conservatism part (if we're taking conservatism to mean fiscal conservatism and not an ardent faith). And an aw-shucks governor of a rural Southern state would also be dead meat once he was subjected to the Democrats (who would conveniently overlook the fact that Bill Clinton was the governor of the same state). He's a lightweight who can't win outside of the South, they say. He talks funny. He was a fat man who now happens to look like Gomer Pyle. And on and on and on.

But many "Passion" viewers weren't all that interested in Mel Gibson's background. After all, evangelicals don't necessarily like Catholics. But Gibson -- who when sober comes across as an immensely charming and likeable guy -- took his case to them and just showed them the product. He said, in essence, "I respect you enough to talk directly to you. And unlike these other Hollywood types, I'm trying to make a product specifically for you that will honor what you believe in. I just ask that you give me a chance."

And most Huckabee voters don't seem to be looking deeply into Huckabee's positions. All they know is that they've been faced with slim pickings in this cycle. And Huckabee -- who comes across as a straight-forward, regular, nice guy -- has taken his case directly to them, saying "Unlike these other Washington types, I'm not going to sell out the reason you vote Republican. I'm not a rich CEO like Romney. I'm not up to my neck in lobbyists and Democratic ties like McCain. I'm trying to do something for you, the religious, hard-working man or woman, and I just ask that you give me a chance." And especially if you ignored Huckabee's previous record and some of his positions, his performance in the debates has been stellar. Unlike McCain and Romney, he comes off as likeable and humble. Unlike Ron Paul, he comes off as sane. In the debate in California, he was just forceful enough, reminding the moderators -- politely -- that it wasn't a two-man race.

"Passion" went on to rake in over $370 million in the U.S. alone and even garnered a few Oscar nods. Mike Huckabee last night turned the Republican primary into a three-man race -- or perhaps a two-man race that doesn't include Mitt Romney.

But I still find it highly unlikely that Huckabee's going to win the nomination. His success with evangelicals and Southern voters doesn't carry over. We've received plenty of pitches about what Mike Huckabee's campaign teaches us about the power of word-of-mouth over traditional advertising. The only thing it teaches us is that evangelicals can be reached this way. After all, without the help of excited evangelicals, Mel Gibson's "Apocalypto" pulled in only $51 million in U.S. box office (which wasn't awful considering his antics earlier that year).

The fact of the matter is there isn't another voting group (or consumer group) as uniquely unified as the evangelicals in the U.S. Fiscal conservatives, for example, have been swearing up and down that McCain will not be the candidate. They've also had the help of talk-radio heavy hitters, including Rush Limbaugh, who has come out against both McCain and Huckabee. Now look at last night's results. There may be an analogy on the Democratic side with Hispanic voters, but I'm unconvinced. They're often treated as a bloc -- until you factor in generational divides (recent immigrants vs. third-generation), cultural differences (Southwestern Mexicans vs. Northeastern Dominicans and Puerto Ricans vs. Florida's Cubans) and religious preferences (Catholic vs. Pentecostal). Heck, Obama's obvious pandering on the illegal immigrant issue in last week's debate certainly didn't help him.

This is not to say that Huckabee won't cast a long shadow on the party. "Passion of the Christ," remember, made a mark on Hollywood, convincing it that Christian fare could make them a buck or two. And Huckabee just might find himself either on the ticket as VP (an outcome I doubt) or a power-broker at the convention.

Still, in the overall scheme of things, big-spending Romney currently has more delegates than Huckabee. Granted, Romney's ROI isn't so great and he doesn't seem to have a shot either. (This all changes if one of them drops out.

Keep in mind, too, that for all his talk of change, Barack Obama is outspending everyone else on traditional advertising, including Mitt Romney. Perhaps next time I'll write about Obama a the "Transformers" of candidates -- a big-budget production that's fun to watch and could win the box-office wars but ultimately makes no sense! (So what does this make Hillary Clinton? I don't know -- some sort of high-fiber "important" film that should sweep the Academy Awards.)
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