A 2016 Game Changer: Mike Huckabee?

He might not win, but he can make it hard for others to pick up socially conservative voters.

How seriously Mike Huckabee is weighing a second presidential campaign in 2016 remains to be seen. The New York Times quotes him as saying “I’m keeping the door open” and “there’s a real opportunity for me.”

But the Club for Growth, a fiscally conservative pressure group that has often been decisive in swinging Republican primaries, is certainly taking Huckabee seriously. They wasted no time releasing a dossier detailing the former Arkansas governor’s tax increases, spending hikes, and approval of a higher minimum wage.

Huckabee is also starting to be taken seriously in the polls. Wickers Group surveys show him with leads in Iowa and South Carolina, both early states. Public Policy Polling has him in third place nationally. That’s one Republican and one Democratic firm.

Polling this early may not mean much, but there are few reasons Huckabee shouldn’t simply be dismissed. First, Republicans already made that mistake in 2008. He wound up winning the Iowa caucuses and several Southern primaries, beating the better-known John McCain and the much better-funded Mitt Romney on a shoestring budget.

This time around, Huckabee is starting in a much better place in the polling. He has higher name recognition from his previous presidential campaign and his subsequent gigs as a radio and television host. And aside from Rick Santorum, there is no logical Christian right candidate in the race.

Of course, Huckabee doesn’t seem to have found a solution to his biggest problem from his last go-around: the former Baptist preacher’s appeal is largely confined to social conservatives, particularly his fellow evangelicals.

Huckabee’s dismissal of “politicians who will enslave themselves to the shifting whims of whichever fat cat made the biggest contribution to the Club for Growth this month” doesn’t sound much different from his description of the group as the “Club for Greed.” In fact, it’s a lot like McCain’s denunciation of prominent Christian conservatives as “agents of intolerance.”

Just as McCain’s slagging of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell didn’t endear him to millions of socially conservative primary voters, Huckabee’s attempts to club the Club will alienate the party’s strong fiscal conservatives and libertarians. (Huck doesn’t much care for libertarians, who are a bigger part of the party than in 2008.)

Indeed, beneath Huckabee’s affable demeanor he can be as tart-tongued—if less foul-mouthed—than McCain. While he has (mostly) quit digging his grave with a knife and fork, he can still dig himself a hole with his comments.

But Huckabee doesn’t have to win the Republican presidential nomination to help shape the race. Consider the Iowa poll showing Huckabee leading New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie 21 percent to 14 percent. Notice that a trio of senators comes next: Ted Cruz of Texas at 14 percent, Rand Paul of Kentucky at 11 percent, and Marco Rubio of Florida at 9 percent. Huckabee’s immediate impact is to siphon votes from younger, up-and-coming Tea Party candidates.

These numbers can easily change, but they also are a good example of what Cruz, Paul, and Rubio would like to avoid. Each one of them has to emerge as the favorite conservative candidate in Iowa to win the caucuses. That’s hard to do if another candidate is taking a huge swathe of the evangelical vote.

Iowa happens to be a state where Ron Paul, the Kentucky senator’s father, did better with evangelicals than in most other places. His Iowa chief, Drew Ivers, was a veteran of Pat Robertson and Pat Buchanan’s presidential campaigns. But Rand Paul still needs to add a critical mass of Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich voters to his father’s base to seal the win in the state.

The paradox of Iowa is this: No other state gives underfunded conservatives a better chance to climb into the top tier. The caucuses represent the right’s golden opportunity to fight the establishment-backed frontrunner on something like even terms.

But Iowa continually undercuts the conservative candidate with the money and organization to go the distance against the establishment’s choice while elevating candidates who would be at more of a disadvantage. Think Robertson over Jack Kemp, Buchanan over Phil Gramm, Alan Keyes coming within ten points of Steve Forbes, Santorum over Rick Perry and, yes, Huckabee over Romney and Fred Thompson.

That’s not always a bad thing. Buchanan was arguably raising more important issues than Gramm in 1996 and the implosion of Perry’s campaign doesn’t seem like a great loss to the republic. But if you are looking at why movement conservatives generally fail to win the nomination—and are more likely to have Herman Cain than a senator as their standard-bearer—Iowa is a good place to start.

How Huckabee does, if he runs, will be a big part of whether history repeats itself.

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