Mike Huckabee’s decision to explore a presidential bid is great news for one and all.
First, he’s genuinely entertaining. (What other ’16 candidate talks God and plays electric guitar?) Second, he crafts hilarious right-wing soundbites (gay marriage threatens “the very foundation which is the essence of how a civilization survives”) . Third, and most importantly, his decision to leave the Fox News cocoon and mull a new campaign will roil the nascent Republican race.
Granted, Mike Huckabee has zero chance of ever becoming president of the United States. He’d win if he ran against someone like Kim Jong-un, but that kind of matchup is not in the cards. He can’t even win the Republican nomination, because (for starters) the economic conservatives at Club for Growth hate the fact that he “repeatedly” raised taxes when he was a “big government” governor of Arkansas.
But Huckabee is broadly popular with evangelical Christian voters, most crucially in the gateway state of Iowa – he won the Iowa caucuses in 2008, he still tops the polls in Iowa – and just by dipping his toe into the ’16 pool, he makes it tougher for rivals who hope to capture the GOP’s religious right electorate. That would be Ted Cruz, Ben Carson, Rick Perry, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, and Rick Santorum. What a splendid spectacle it would be to see all those guys on the same debate stage, along with Huckabee, rhetorically driving each other further to the right.
But here’s the main thing: Huckabee’s inclusion would be great news for Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, and other party establishment candidates.
With Huckabee in the mix, the likeliest scenario is that he and his rightward rivals would divvy up the evangelical electorate – essentially cancelling each other out, in terms of vote percentage. That would make it easier for a center-right guy like Bush to finish on top – not in Iowa, but in the subsequent big-state primaries, where the GOP’s center-right electorate is considerably more sizeable.
That’s basically what happened when Huckabee ran in 2008. After his Iowa win, he hit the wall in crucial South Carolina – a state with a large religious-right electorate, but nevertheless a state that, in GOP primaries, has traditionally supported the party establishment favorite. One of John McCain’s buddies, sluggish presidential candidate Fred Thompson, stayed in the race just long enough to thwart Huckabee in South Carolina. Thompson made a strong pitch to religious conservative voters, and wound up sharing them with Huckabee. Result: center-right McCain eked out a key win.
And by the time the ’08 race moved to Florida, Huckabee was basically toast. There was a ceiling on his appeal – religious-right voters weren’t sufficiently numerous – and he finished fourth. Plus, he didn’t have the money to compete in the big states, where expensive TV ads are a necessary evil. Among donors, there’s a ceiling on his appeal. (Whereas Bush has no such ceiling.) All told, there’s zero reason to think that a Huckabee scenario would be different this time.
Bottom line: Most Republican primary voters are looking for somebody who can actually get elected. A guy who equates gay marriage with the demise of civilization, who opposes abortion even in cases of rape and incest, who as late as ’07 was still defending old assertions that AIDS victims should be quarantined, who makes semi-incoherent attacks on birth control – no way that guy can ever get elected. Huckabee’s brand is ultimately manna for a mainstream Republican like Bush.
But what fun we could have along the way to another establishment nomination!
Way over on the out-of-the-mainstream right, Rick Santorum is already jonesing to resurrect old Huckabee heresies, like his support for allowing illegal immigrants to stay in America. Other conservatives are whispering anew about the five different occasions when Huckabee was formally admonished by the Arkansas Ethics Commission. Still others remember when the following sentence actually slipped past Huckabee’s lips: “One thing that all of us have a responsibility to do is recognize that climate change is here, it’s real.” And so on.
The fun is likely to commence on Jan. 24, naturally in Iowa, where extremist GOP congressman Steve King is slated to host a “Freedom Summit.” Huckabee says he’ll be there. Perry, Cruz, Carson, and Santorum say they’ll be there. Good luck, Huck, and let the pandering begin.