Mike Huckabee Enters Presidential Race, But He’s Weaker Than He Was In 2008
Mike Huckabee's back, but the 2008 magic is gone.
Following closely on the heels of Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, who ran for President in 2008 but passed up a chance to run in 2012, announced in a rally in his hometown of Hope, Arkansas that he was running for President:
HOPE, Ark. — Mike Huckabee, who excited evangelical voters in his first presidential race in 2008 and retains much of their good will, announced on Tuesday that he would again seek the Republican nomination, despite a crowded field of rivals for his natural base in the party.
A former Southern Baptist pastor and Arkansas governor, Mr. Huckabee is returning in hopes of once more dominating among social conservatives, but he is acutely aware he needs broader support to avoid the snares of last time, when he ran dry of money and failed to appeal much beyond the South.
After describing a childhood of school prayer, fishing trips and running for student council in Hope, Mr. Huckabee said, “So it seems perfectly fitting that it would be here that I announce I am a candidate for president of the United States.”
t was no small detail that he declared his candidacy in Hope, where he was born. Its fame as the hometown of an even better-known Arkansas politician, Bill Clinton, highlights a major theme of Mr. Huckabee’s 2016 pitch – that he is well suited to be the Republican nemesis for Hillary Rodham Clinton, if she becomes the Democratic nominee, because Mr. Huckabee spent years in state politics triumphing over what he calls the “Clinton machine.”
On the day Mrs. Clinton entered the race last month, Mr. Huckabee tweaked her on Twitter: “Your announcement makes me nostalgic for our days doing political battle in Arkansas.”
The biggest question in voters’ minds about Mr. Huckabee, 59, who seemed to add a final punctuation mark to his political career by skipping the 2012 presidential race, may be why he has returned to the fray.
Although American politics is full of stories of the ultimate triumph of also-rans, from Richard M. Nixon to Ronald Reagan, Mr. Huckabee would seem to face greater obstacles than during his first presidential campaign, when he battled only a couple of rivals for the party’s conservative base.
Now half a dozen or more declared and likely candidates appeal to social conservatives, and Mr. Huckabee’s party has moved further rightward. He is vulnerable to criticism for positions he once held in favor of the Common Core education standards and a cap-and-trade program to fight global warming.
“It is a completely different environment than 2008, with different issues and with different candidates,” said Bob Vander Plaats, who was chairman of Mr. Huckabee’s 2008 Iowa campaign and is uncommitted this time.
Mr. Huckabee’s upset victory in the Iowa caucuses eight years ago, powered by evangelicals and home-school families, has been burnished to a political legend in the state that holds the first nominating contest. Recent polls show Iowa Republicans still put Mr. Huckabee among their top preferences, although he has been surpassed by more prominent party figures including Scott Walker and Jeb Bush.
To an unusual degree, strategists for Mr. Huckabee are counting on his likability – a folksy charm that a national audience got to know during his six years as a Fox News host – to break through the pack of competitors. Mr. Huckabee ranks high in favorability in polls. His campaign aides argue that voters will “come home” to Mr. Huckabee after kicking the tires of the shinier new vehicles in the race.
A bigger problem may be money. Mr. Huckabee raised just over $16 million in 2008, and despite victories in eight nominating contests saw his campaign expire for lack of funds to advertise in major states like Florida. The rules of campaign finance have changed in the new “super PAC” era, when as few as one or two super-wealthy supporters can fund an outside, parallel campaign.
But it is unclear whether Mr. Huckabee has yet attracted such support. While his strategists offered assurances he is having more success lining up donors, they would not provide details.
As I noted, the idea of Huckabee repeating his 2008 bid isn’t a new one. In the run-up to the 2012 campaign, and especially in the light of polls that showed him leading presumptive Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney, there was much speculation that the former Arkansas Governor would enter the race. As it turned out, he decided that he preferred the show he was doing on Fox News Channel at the time, and even started a talk radio show that made it seem as though he’d left electoral politics behind. As the 2016 campaign season approached, though, it seemed as though he’d gotten bitten by the bug again. His radio show had ended in 2014, and he left Fox News Channel not long after that, for example, and began hitting the speaking circuit in places like Iowa and South Carolina, a sign that many people took to mean that he was at least looking at running again. When the announced a few weeks ago that he was holding a rally today in his hometown, it was clear that he was entering the race.
From the tone and rhetoric of Huckabee’s speech today, it’s clear that he intends to base a good deal on his campaign on the factors that helped in come out of nowhere in 2008, specifically his appeal to evangelical voters in places such as Iowa and South Carolina. As I’ve noted before, though, and as Nate Cohn makes clear in a piece today in The New York Times, the difference between 2008 and 2016 is that, this time, Huckabee isn’t going to be the only candidate seeking to appeal to evangelical voters and it’s unclear if he’s going to be able to recreate the 2008 magic this time around. Even before Huckabee got into the race, there are at least two candidates in the race who will obviously be appealing to those voters in the persons of Ted Cruz and Ben Carson, and two others who will at least make the effort in Rand Paul and Marco Rubio. Other candidates that are likely to enter the race in the coming months, such as Scott Walker, Rick Santorum, and others, will also be competing for these voters. In 2008, Huckabee largely had the evangelical field to himself, this time he’s going to be competing against people who can make equally valid arguments to these voters that they are the candidate they should be getting behind
Adding to Huckabee’s problems are the fact that he doesn’t really seem to have much support outside of the evangelical base be came to rely upon in 2008. To some extent, he’s made some conscious efforts to try to compensate for that by making appeals to economic populism and the working class not dissimilar to those we heard from Rick Santorum in 2012, but that message, or at least the way he phrased it in his speech today, isn’t very different from what we are hearing from other Republicans. Furthermore, as the linked article above hints, it’s not clear where Huckabee is going to get his money from. The evangelical community that supported him seven years ago is divided now, and it’s unlikely that he’s going to get support from any of the GOP’s big money donors or bundlers. Finally, there’s the simple fact that, notwithstanding how he may be doing in the polls right now, there seems to be quite a lot of disdain for Huckabee among movement conservatives. To a large degree, he is out of step with that wing of the party on economic and fiscal issues, and the record as Governor that he points to as an example of his leadership also includes support for many tax increases and other measures anathema to most conservatives. Given that, it seems unlikely that he’s going to be able to peel a lot of support away from people like Cruz, Paul, and Rubio.
Looking at the polls, Huckabee’s position seems to have weakened from what it used to be, and it’s hard to see where he goes from here. Nationally, he currently stands at 7.5% in the RealClearPolitics polling average, which is significantly below where he was last year when he was as high as 15% in early polling. In Iowa, Huckabee is averaging 9% at the moment, which puts him behind Bush, Walker, and Rubio, and is a far cry from where he was six months ago when he was leading early polling in Iowa. Considering that this is the state where he pulled off his big surprised seven years ago, the fact that his polling numbers have been slipping is hardly good news. In New Hampshire, Huckabee is averaging 5.8%, which puts him behind Chris Christie and roughly in the same league as Ben Carson. Given that the Granite State has very few evangelicals, this perhaps isn’t very surprising. In South Carolina, which should presumably be friendlier territory, Huckabee is averaging 9.0% and sits behind Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, and hometown Senator Lindsey Graham, none of whom have even entered the race yet. Finally, the former Governor is in the middle of the field in the Sunshine state at 7.7%, and this seems like a state where he’s unlikely to be able to break into the front of the pack. These numbers will obviously change as the race progresses, but as a preliminary matter this doesn’t exactly look very good for Huckabee and, as Harry Enten notes at FiveThirtyEight, the prospects for him to do what he’d need to do to get there in any of these states don’t look very good at all.
To the extent Mike Huckabee had a realistic shot at being the Republican nominee, it likely passed in 2012 when he declined to run. This time around, the signs all point to him being far weaker than he was seven years ago with little realistic possibility that he’d be able to overcome that.