Mike Huckabee wants you to believe that his entry into the race for the 2016 GOP nomination next week will be a game-changer. He‘s planning to follow up his announcement of his candidacy on May 5th by barnstorming through Iowa for two days. His mission: to win back social conservatives from the likes of Ted Cruz, who’s been making steady inroads of late, and to re-unify evangelicals behind a single galvanizing candidate.
But it’s unlikely to happen. Cruz has already caught fire and his flame is spreading rapidly to New Hampshire, where Huckabee has no standing. And it’s not just Cruz. Rick Santorum, who wrapped himself up in Huckabee’s mantle in 2012, and ended up as the chief antagonist to Mitt Romney, is probably running again, and is unlikely to cede his supporters. And Scott Walker, a preacher’s son, and Jeb Bush, who’s as pro-life as they come, are also vying effectively for the hearts and minds of Christian voters.
The fact is, Huckabee faces a very different Republican playing field than the one he encountered in 2008. It’s more supportive in some ways, but far more prohibitive in others. The main difference is that the party has moved steadily to the right since 2008, and Huckabee can no longer claim to be the only “true blue” conservative standard-bearer. When Huckabee ran in 2008, he faced an openly pro-choice centrist in the figure of John McCain and Romney, whose Mormonism and history of flip-flopping on social issues alienated many base voters. Huckabee could credibly claim to be the only candidate in the race who deeply cared about the party’s “moral” agenda.
Still, once Huckabee lost in South Carolina, where he failed to build support outside his evangelical constituency, he was finished as a contender for the nomination. He went on to win six southern states and garnered nearly 20 percent of the primary vote. Driving Romney out of the race early and dogging McCain for the length of the campaign was a moral victory — but a pyrrhic one, too. Huckabee never really demonstrated that he was a credible national contender. His overtures to non-religious voters, and those more concerned about national security and the economy, largely fell on deaf ears.
Huckabee had a terrific shot at the GOP nomination in 2012, when polls showed him leading the Republican field and even beating Barack Obama, but he never committed himself to running. Some believe he simply didn’t have the fire in his belly. Huckabee himself seemed intimidated by the prospect of facing a popular incumbent, as he confessed to a Washington Post reporter in 2011. In any event, by not running, he left the field open to others, and many have rushed in to seize his fallen mantle.
Can Huckabee reclaim it? He’s clearly going to try. In Iowa next week, he’ll meet with religious leaders and to try to convince them to recognize him as their champion again. In recent stops in the Hawkeye State, he’s shown the magic of old. But Huckabee still needs to show that he can build a viable campaign apparatus and raise serious money. All of his rivals – Bush, Walker and even Cruz – have amassed large war chests and can afford to compete in all the key primary and caucus states. It remains to be seen whether Huckabee can.
Huckabee does have strong national name recognition and a popular image, largely due to his many years as a talk show host and television personality. Within the party he’s viewed more favorably than any other candidate, and despite his fierce opposition to abortion and gay marriage, political moderates and even some women voters are drawn to his genial and modest personality. Huckabee likes to say, “I’m a conservative but I’m not mad about it.” It’s not quite true – he’s madder on the stump and in speeches than he ever was — but at a time when many voters are put off by the gridlock and hyper-partisanship, his overall message of restraint and civility is genuinely appealing.
Undoubtedly, Huckabee, like Rubio, will get a bounce in the polls after he announces next week. After leading the field in Iowa and elsewhere last year – based solely on name recognition — he’s fallen back into the second-tier. But he’s within striking distance of the current front-runners. He may well pull support from each of them, while displacing third-tier candidates like Carson and Jindal. If he does, he could find himself at the top of the leader board again – but it’s unclear for how long.
Perhaps the main challenge for Huckabee is the strong opposition he still faces from business conservatives. In 2008, the Club for Growth attacked his record on taxation in Arkansas, touching off a feud that has only worsened since. Huckabee, who is not a natural fundraiser, may not be able to attract major donors to a Super PAC because of ongoing opposition from these forces. Some are likely to be worried by his stoking of populist anger at Wall Street and corporate America. Other candidates including Bush, Rubio and Paul, and even Cruz, are tweaking their policy stances to reflect a tone of “compassionate” conservatism that can appeal to lower middle class voters.
But none will face the kind of organized smear campaign on economic policy that will greet Huckabee if his candidacy begins to gain traction.
Make no mistake: Huckabee, at 59, is no slouch. But once the fanfare from his announcement dies down, the structural weaknesses of his candidacy will likely become apparent. Like Sarah Plain, being a talk show host brings you instant fame – and a devoted following — but it doesn’t necessarily allow you to bridge to all voter groups. And like Palin, Huckabee is prone to embarrassing gaffes. His recent criticism of the popular singer Beyoncé struck many, even his own supporters, as over the top. As a political candidate under constant scrutiny, Huckabee will need far more message discipline than he’s accustomed to if he expects to stay in the hunt.
Huckabee claims to have “beaten” the Clinton “machine” in Arkansas, but his efforts to invoke the battles of yore could well backfire on him. It could end up reminding GOP voters that the former Baptist pastor – though genial and charismatic as ever — is a face and leader from the past. As an elder statesman, he’s free to add his distinctive voice to the widening Republican choir — but he can no longer reasonably expect to be the party’s first tenor.