Mike Huckabee’s announcement that he’s considering entering the 2016 presidential fray has the potential to completely shake up the race. That’s because he would immediately leap to be among the front of the heap because of his national name ID and his deep support among Evangelical Republicans. The race is currently bereft of a clear Evangelical favorite; Huckabee would immediately fill that void.
Since the rise of Evangelicals as a political force in the mid-1980s, Republican nominating races often see a “surprise” candidate bursting out from the pack with support from evangelicals. Reverend Pat Robertson broke ground in 1988 as that candidate, with Pat Buchanan, Huckabee himself, and Rick Santorum following his lead in subsequent races. The emergence of an Evangelical-focused candidate as one of the final GOP contenders should no longer be a surprising outcome — the only question should now be who will fill that role.
Huckabee would have to fight off Rick Santorum, who looks likely to run again and was the Evangelical favorite in 2012, to seize that mantle. Huckabee would have a couple of advantages over the former senator, though: continued national name ID because of his Fox show and his own Evangelical faith. Santorum would have his support among religious Catholics, a segment important in the Midwest and one Huckabee was unable to penetrate in his 2008 bid. One can’t say right now who would win that contest, but it would be a serious fight to see who represents the religious segment of the Republican party in the final rounds.
Any Evangelical-favored candidate faces head winds in becoming the party’s nominee. Traditionally, centrist Republican voters (those who call themselves “somewhat conservative” in exit polls) have sided with the more secular figure when the race winnows down to the final two. The one exception to this three-decade trend was in 2000, when Evangelical George W. Bush combined the Evangelical and the centrist Republican vote to hold off the more moderate John McCain. Both Huckabee and Santorum would have to do in 2016 what they proved unable to do in their prior races, appeal to non-Evangelical somewhat conservative voters, if they are to become winners.
The prospect of an early Evangelical favorite rising to the fore should worry establishment and tea-party candidates alike. Establishment candidates could face the prospect of losing early races in Evangelical-dominated Iowa and South Carolina to such a person, ensuring a longer race where social issues are again prominently debated. Tea Party candidates should worry because in most states the most conservative Republican voters are disproportionately Evangelical. If they vote their soul over their pocketbook in 2016, largely economically inclined conservative candidates might find their support drain away much as Steve Forbes and Phil Gramm did in the 1996 and 2000 contests.
In any event, the 2016 field just got more crowded and more interesting. It is sure to get even more so as the cycle matures.
— Henry Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.