Mike Huckabee's Best Friend: The Calendar

Mike Huckabee's Best Friend: The Calendar
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On Saturday night, Mike Huckabee announced he was ending his eponymous TV show on The Fox News Channel—the most conclusive evidence to date that the former Arkansas governor is likely to enter the 2016 race for the Republican presidential nomination later this year.

Over the last year, Huckabee has reactivated his tight-knit team of advisers and taken several other the behind-the-scenes steps that suggest he is indeed serious about launching a second White House bid after his 2008 campaign soared to a triumph in Iowa and then quickly fizzled out.

Though most tuned-in GOP operatives and would-be political opponents regard Huckabee as a serious potential contender, other Republicans have been quick to dismiss him as a flash in the pan whose chance to make a significant impact on the national stage has come and gone.

Among the frequently cited reasons to doubt Huckabee’s chances: He has been an anemic fundraiser in the past and has an uncertain appeal to the mainline Republican electorate, whose pragmatic tendencies typically determine who becomes the GOP nominee.

Additionally, Huckabee’s record in Little Rock has long come under fire from economically conservative groups, including and most prominently the Club for Growth, which on Monday reignited its crusade against him. And his emphasis on litigating social issues with alacrity amid a rapidly changing culture threatens to make some Republicans nervous about his chances in a general election setting. 

Despite all of these weaknesses, however, Huckabee’s principal strengths as a potential candidate are just as compelling, if perhaps not as instantly apparent.

He is an affable, experienced former chief executive who is charismatic on the stump, quick on his feet and enjoys unrivaled stature within the Republican evangelical base—a standing that has been bolstered significantly by his Fox News show’s more than six-year run.

Huckabee likes to campaign, and he’s good at it—a factor frequently under appreciated in early attempts to size up a candidate’s chances on paper.

But the best case for Huckabee’s viability in 2016 may have more to do more with a stroke of good fortune than it does any of the likely contender’s personal attributes.

The 2016 Republican nominating calendar is shaping up to be Huckabee’s most formidable asset—especially if five southern states follow through with a proposed Super Southern Primary in March 2016.

It all starts in Iowa where the 2008 winner of the first-in-the-nation caucuses currently stands as the early favorite to repeat that triumph.

Huckabee leads the hypothetical GOP field by 6.2 percent in the latest RealClearPolitics average of Iowa polls and has held or shared the lead when included as an option in every public survey conducted in the state this year.

Among Iowa’s influential evangelical electorate, support for Huckabee runs deep. And if he can notch another victory there in a crowded field, he likely will knock out a competitor or two who otherwise would have posed a challenge farther down the road.  

The challenge for Huckabee will be to rise to the high expectations that he will face in Iowa during his second presidential go-around. 

“I think the dynamics are a little bit different this time with some of the others in the race, but there’s no doubt that people will consider him the favorite,” said Iowa Republican consultant Steve Grubbs, who is advising likely 2016 GOP candidate Rand Paul in the nation’s first voting state. “But this time, everybody will see him coming, and he’s going to have to work hard to hold his base.”

After Iowa comes New Hampshire—a state where the more moderate and secular Republican primary electorate is ill-suited for Huckabee.

In 2008, Huckabee decided to compete anyway in the Granite State, and his somewhat respectable yet distant third-place showing there slowed the momentum he had generated in Iowa.

This time around, Huckabee’s advisers appear to have learned their lesson from having been tempted by the New Hampshire’s glaring yet unrealistic allure.

There is little doubt that the state poses the highest hurdle for Huckabee on the early nominating calendar, but one that he is poised to sidestep rather than scale.

“I would have him go straight from Iowa to South Carolina,” said one Huckabee confidant who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss the prospective candidate’s strategic thinking.

Assuming Mitt Romney—who won Nevada in both 2008 and 2012—does not enter the 2016 race, that state will be up for grabs, and Huckabee’s aides believe he is well-positioned to compete there. One reason is that Nevada hosts a caucus rather than a primary—a restrictive format conducive to strong turnout from the kinds of deeply committed backers that Huckabee tends to attract, though it figures for that reason to be perhaps even more advantageous to Rand Paul.

The higher profile first-in-the-South primary in South Carolina indeed remains a particularly enticing prize for Huckabee, who finished in a close second place to John McCain there in 2008.

Some Huckabee allies have long pinned that loss on the flagging candidacy of fellow southerner Fred Thompson, who may have siphoned off just enough votes from Huckabee to hand McCain the victory that helped propel him toward the nomination that year.

That supposition remains questionable, but there is little doubt that a substantial segment of the South Carolina Republican electorate remains culturally and ideologically aligned with Huckabee—giving him a distinct chance of success in a state where he retains a wide swath of loyal friends and advisers.

But Huckabee’s most valuable trump card in the entire 2016 calendar comes on March 1 when officials from five states in the heart of the former Confederacy—Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi and Tennessee—are taking steps toward hosting what would effectively become a Super Southern Primary.

In 2008, Huckabee was the victor in each of those southern states except for Mississippi, which held its primary a week after he dropped out of the race.

Assuming the proposal comes together, March 1 of 2016 will provide Huckabee with a major opportunity to harness momentum and lock up a significant number of delegates at a pivotal stage in the game.   

Set for publication in two weeks, the title of Huckabee’s latest book—“God, Guns, Grits and Gravy”—suggests the extent to which the likely candidate will continue to play up his Deep South roots, even if the two Texans who are considering 2016 White House bids are also in the mix.

“You can’t line up states better,” a Huckabee confidant said of the proposed March 1 southern primaries. “And that brings into play who the real southerner in the race is. Ted Cruz and Rick Perry, with all due respect to Texans, they’re just not southerners like an Arkansan, a Mississippian, South Carolinian or Alabaman. They’re just not.”

It is far from a given that Huckabee’s candidacy would be financially and operationally robust enough to survive until that March 1 date, and an early defeat in Iowa could end his bid before it has the chance to get off the ground.

But the opportunity for Mike Huckabee to make a major impact on the impending race for the Republican nomination is evident.

Though his TV show has ended, Huckabee will have plenty of activities on his agenda to keep himself busy before he makes his final decision on whether to enter the race.

His 10-state book tour will begin in two weeks, and then Huckabee plans to make his annual visit to Israel.

In February and March, he will focus on individual meetings with prospective donors to attempt to gain some assurance that his likely campaign would not be a repeat of the threadbare operation he ran in 2008.

Decision day will follow soon thereafter.

Huckabee plans to make an announcement about his 2016 plans—likely the formation of a presidential exploratory committee, which would serve as an all-but-official campaign apparatus—sometime in April. 


Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at sconroy@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @RealClearScott.

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