Mike Huckabee is going to put down his bass and walk away from his lucrative Fox News show to at least contemplate a run for the presidency.
The former Arkansas governor should be taken seriously, even if he faces an uphill battle to win the Republican nomination against opponents with superior fundraising and organization.
Huckabee already exceeded expectations in his first presidential campaign back in 2008. He started as a lower-tiered candidate while pro-choice, pro-civil unions Rudy Giuliani led in all the national polls—which might tell you something about the reliability of name ID-based early polling.
Giuliani didn’t win a single primary, while Huckabee carried eight states, including the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses. And that was before the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision gave rise to the super PACs that benefited Rick Santorum last time around.
Today Huckabee can probably raise money earlier on his own because he will start out polling in the top tier in Iowa, some Southern states, and perhaps nationally. He could also benefit from some socially conservative super PACs.
The conventional wisdom seems to be that the religious right has gone away since a lot of its national organizational muscle has atrophied. But evangelicals remain thick on the ground in Republican primaries, and some of their state-based political organizations are still forces to be reckoned with. In some cases, those organizations include the state Republican Party apparatus.
Huckabee’s 2008 rise was fueled by evangelicals craving authenticity. There was a strong desire among Republican primary voters for a conservative alternative to John McCain. Fred Thompson, the most promising carrier of that mantle, did not seem to want it enough. Mitt Romney wanted it too much, running for president on a Reaganite fusionist platform after having governed Massachusetts as a more moderate Republican in the tradition of his late father.
With Thompson seemingly snoozing through the early states and Romney distrusted by the party’s largest single voting bloc, Huckabee had a natural opening. But the very conditions that launched him into the top tier kept him from being able to truly compete with McCain. His support was too limited to evangelicals. A successful conservative candidate cannot have the kind of steep drop-off from Iowa to New Hampshire that Huckabee, and subsequently Santorum, experienced.
Huckabee also kept anybody else from being able to go toe to toe with McCain. He essentially knocked Thompson, who finished third in the Huckabee states of Iowa and South Carolina, out of the race, and then split the conservative vote with Romney. The two ex-governors became regional candidates. Huckabee’s stronghold was the South, while Romney did better in the Mountain States.
Perhaps Huckabee can top his 2008 showing. If Jeb Bush runs but Chris Christie proves more durable than Giuliani, Huckabee may be positioned to win more states with 25 to 30 percent of the vote. That probably wouldn’t suffice for the nomination by itself, but it could buy him more time to broaden his base.
The likelier scenario is that if Huckabee is once again the evangelical candidate, he will prevent other conservatives with non-evangelical appeal—and probably more money and better organizations—from gaining steam. This is especially true in Iowa, where evangelicals have in the past been willing to support socially conservative candidates who support a restrained foreign policy, most notably Pat Buchanan and Ron Paul.
Keeping Huckabee from consolidating the evangelical vote will be important for some of the other candidates. If Jeb Bush follows his brother’s lead, he will marry the evangelical vote to the establishment, making it difficult for any movement conservative challenge to get off the ground.
True, Dubya was an evangelical himself, albeit one who still belonged to a mainline Protestant church, while Jeb is Catholic. But that’s not necessarily an obstacle. Buchanan and Santorum have proven that evangelicals will support socially conservative Catholics. Several rungs down the ladder, Catholic Alan Keyes did much better among evangelicals than did their coreligionist Gary Bauer.
Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, Scott Walker, Bobby Jindal or John Kasich, to name just a few possibilities, would all benefit from a split evangelical vote, with each getting their slice. Ted Cruz may even try to dethrone Huckabee as the top evangelical vote-getter, as Santorum will likely need to do to even keep pace with his 2012 performance.
American politics has become a volatile business, so anything can happen. But the smart money says either Huckabee goes nowhere in 2016 or conservatives do.
W. James Antle III is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and author of Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?