Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee calls his cadre of loyal volunteers “Huck’s Army.” And one of his premiere battalions is a tight network of Christian home-schooling families who view the campaign as a civic -- and educational -- duty.
Huckabee has spent roughly $400,000 campaigning in Iowa and has hired enough full-time workers in recent months to put his statewide staff into double digits. Yet he’s pulled even with or ahead of his chief rival, Mitt Romney, who has spent millions.
John and Diane Desaulniers plan to spend the Christmas season making sure Huckabee keeps his momentum. They and their four children -- two in college and two being home-schooled through high school -- have committed to taking on any task that needs doing, whether it’s updating campaign databases, distributing yard signs or baking Christmas cookies to energize the staff.
“It’s a full family affair,” John Desaulniers said.
As other candidates have found over the years, home-schoolers’ flexible schedules make them invaluable volunteers. High school-age students can call a halt to calculus to set up chairs for a town hall meeting, or put off biology for a day to stick mailing labels on the latest campaign flier.
In the evenings, families pile into minivans to canvas door-to-door. Parents often send their children to make the pitch, so the whole experience becomes part of their education, like a civics class come to life.
“You get a family where there’s eight or nine children . . . you have a team right there. Put several of those out helping, and doing it for free, and that does a lot,” said Justin LaVan, 35, a Des Moines lawyer and father of five who serves on the board of the Network of Iowa Christian Home Educators.
Huckabee’s campaign won’t talk much about the home-schooling contingent, which is largely made up of conservative Christians. The staff is weary -- and wary -- of stories that make it seem as though their candidate, an ordained Southern Baptist preacher, relies exclusively on votes and volunteers from the religious right.
“All I’ve heard the last week is pastors, pastors, pastors, evangelicals, evangelicals, evangelicals,” said Eric Woolson, who runs the Iowa campaign.
But the buzz in political circles is that a quarter of Huckabee’s Iowa volunteers are home-schoolers. “It might even be higher than that,” said Danny Carroll, a campaign co-chairman for the state.
Huckabee, always ready with a quip, explained the phenomenon this way: “They’re very smart people. They know a good candidate when they see one.”
About 9,000 of Iowa’s students are home-educated. Nationwide, the number is 2 million and rising steadily, according to Michael P. Ferris, who runs the national home-schooling association. Home-schoolers are distributed fairly evenly among the states. Though an increasing number are ethnic or racial minorities, the majority of families are evangelical Christians.
Analysts caution that such interest groups can provide a boost, but generally can’t push a candidate all the way to victory, even in a small state like Iowa.
“At some point . . . you have to break out of these limited networks to pick up independents and people who aren’t paying much attention but will come out on caucus night,” said Timothy M. Hagle, a political scientist at the University of Iowa.
On the other hand, the home-school crowd has proved its mettle in other races. Home-schoolers knocked on hundreds of thousands of doors to help propel Republican Bobby Jindal to victory in the Louisiana governor’s race in October.
In Illinois, longtime Republican legislator Penny Pullen said an 11-year-old home-schooled boy was her best precinct captain ever, wearing down undecided voters with his enthusiasm and energy.
And in Iowa, home educators mobilized through e-mail chains and support groups to help boost Huckabee from obscurity into a second-place finish at the straw poll in Ames last summer. Pundits were shocked at Huckabee’s strong finish. Home-schooling parents were not; some had driven hours to attend a special breakfast the candidate held before the poll just for home-schooled families.
“This is the first presidential campaign in some time I’ve felt engaged in,” said Pete Kottra, 43, who has promoted Huckabee’s candidacy through his home-school support network.
On the trail, Huckabee boasts that he was the first Arkansas governor to send his children to public schools through 12th grade. He loves to talk about bolstering arts and music in public education.
Still, home-schoolers consider him one of them in spirit.
As governor, Huckabee appointed a home-schooling mother to the state Board of Education. He also signed a bill making it easier for parents to teach their children at home. (Although two years later, he approved a revised plan that added a few bureaucratic hurdles.)
“People appreciate that I recognize that ultimately, education is a decision for moms and dads, not governments to make,” Huckabee said at a news conference this week.
His faith also resonates with conservative Christian home-schoolers, who often use texts that dispute evolution and teach the Book of Genesis. Campaigning last month, Huckabee called for public school students to learn the biblical creation story as well as evolution.
“I want schools to be honest and say, ‘There are many points of view. Here’s the evidence, dig through and see what you think,’ ” he said. “You’d be surprised. Students aren’t going to fall on their face and say, ‘Oh no! I’ve been indoctrinated into religious thought!’ ”
The political arm of the national Home School Legal Defense Assn. endorsed Huckabee in June. The group e-mailed thousands of members, urging them to donate, volunteer and pray for the folksy governor.
Since then, Home Educators for Huckabee groups have sprung up in several states.
In North Carolina on Friday, hundreds of home-schoolers packed a Huckabee rally; many carried babies, toddlers or hand-written signs that said “Hug Me Huck.” In South Carolina, a home-schooling mother of three has launched an Internet campaign to get parents to scrawl their support for Huckabee across their car’s rear windshields.
And in New Hampshire, the Huckabee campaign held a spaghetti dinner this fall that was heavily attended by home-schooling families who have gone on to promote his candidacy at educator workshops and curriculum fairs.
Asked how many hours her family will spend campaigning for Huckabee in Iowa, home-schooling mother Barb Heki, 51, sounds surprised.
“We just ask what the greatest needs are,” she said. “I’ve never even kept track.”
Mehta reported from Des Moines and Simon from Denver.