What Huckabee understands—and what makes him a serious presence in the GOP field—is that many Republican voters, even those on the right, aren’t opposed to generous government spending on individuals. Disproportionately older or elderly, they’re strong supporters of Social Security and Medicare, which they see as earned benefits. Instead, they’re opposed to spending on people perceived as undeserving. Texas Gov. Rick Perry discovered this the hard way in the 2012 primary, when he blasted Social Security as a “Ponzi scheme.” Seniors turned against him:
To the older, white Tea Party voters Perry needs to win the Republican nomination, this simply isn’t true. “We paid into Social Security,” said Steven Anderson, a member of the Low Country 9/12 project and a retiree. His wife, Judie, chimed in, “It’s not an entitlement, it’s ours.” The same went for Art LeBruce, a retired Army medic and longtime member of the group: “That’s my money that I put into Social Security — I deserve it.”
Huckabee isn’t the only Republican to grasp this dynamic. In 2010, Republican candidates slammed President Obama and the Democrats for “gutting Medicare” to pay for the Affordable Care Act, fueling the wave that gave Republicans a House majority. In the next election, Mitt Romney and Rep. Paul Ryan would try the same, attacking Obamacare as a giveaway to unnamed “others” at the expense of seniors, even as they pushed plans that required large cuts to the social safety net. And most famously, George W. Bush expanded the welfare state for seniors with a massive prescription drug benefit.