Mike Huckabee dropped his biggest hint to date yesterday that he might run for president in 2016. Should he run, his national name ID and his strong 2008 run probably doom any chance Rick Santorum has (Santorum’s 2012 vote largely overlapped with Huckabee’s 2008 backers). But it also throws a huge monkey wrench into any hopes Senator Ted Cruz has of winning the nomination.
Cruz’s chance rests on mobilizing tea-party grassroots conservatives behind his cause and quickly emerging as the sole conservative choice to take on a more moderate Republican. But polls have consistently shown that tea-party supporters have significant overlap with politically active Evangelical Christians. In most Senate primaries with tea-party challengers, Evangelicals and anti-government conservatives have tended to unite behind one person. Huckabee’s entrance into the race would give the Evangelicals a choice: Do they prefer an overtly religious man with less credibility on spending reduction or a conservative anti-spender who is also an Evangelical?
The primary track record since Pat Robertson’s 1988 campaign suggests many would prefer the more religiously themed man. Evangelicals have consistently given religious conservatives strong support even when they are Catholic (Pat Buchanan in 1996, Rick Santorum in 2012). Even in 2000, when Evangelical Texas governor George W. Bush had secured most mainstream religious conservative support, fringe religious conservatives Gary Bauer and Alan Keyes still received nearly a quarter of the vote in the pivotal Iowa caucus. It would be hard to imagine that Huckabee could not do as well as Bauer and Keyes, and if he did, there wouldn’t be enough hard-core conservatives left for Cruz to corral.
Given how much attention is given to the first two races, it is hard to see anyone getting the nomination who doesn’t win or place in either Iowa or New Hampshire. Since New Hampshire has one of the most moderate GOP electorates in the nation, that means Cruz, Huckabee, or any other candidate relying on movement conservative support needs to win or place in Iowa to have any shot at all. That means one of them must effectively knock out the others in Iowa to have a chance in subsequent races. Given Iowa’s nearly 30-year preference for religious conservatives, that bodes ill for Cruz.
Cruz has plenty of time to deal with this potential threat. He could adopt more of a public stance on things like persecution of Christians, marriage and the family, and religious freedom. He could also speak more openly about his faith and the role it plays in his public life. In the absence of that, though, Cruz is likelier than is currently thought to go the way of big-talking Texans John Connally and Phil Gramm and quickly disappear from the 2016 contest if Huckabee gets in.
— Henry Olsen is a Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.