CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated Whit Ayres's role in the campaign. He is working for Jon Huntsman.
Mike Huckabee, judging by the early opinion polls, would have been among the most formidable challengers to Mitt Romney, the putative front-runner for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination. But Huckabee’s departure from the race, paradoxically, could make it more difficult for Romney to prevail.
The reason is that with Huckabee off the field, the former Baptist minister’s core constituency—the evangelical Christians who represent nearly half of the GOP’s primary electorate—are now back in play for all competitors. If Romney can’t defang the resistance he encountered from those voters in 2008, he faces the threat that they will eventually consolidate behind another contender, such as former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, with potentially wider support than Huckabee demonstrated last time. “The risk for Romney is that some other candidate with broader appeal may attract them, someone who could stitch together a majority coalition in a way that Huckabee was not going to do,” says veteran GOP pollster Whit Ayres, who is working for potential presidential hopeful Jon Huntsman.
Even many Republicans underestimate the centrality of evangelical voters in the GOP’s nominating process. In 2008, self-identified evangelical Christians constituted 44 percent of all Republican presidential primary voters, according to a cumulative analysis of state exit polls by former ABC polling director Gary Langer. Candidates who rely almost entirely on evangelicals—such as Huckabee, Gary Bauer in 2000, and televangelist Pat Robertson in 1988—have never come close to winning the GOP nomination. But evangelicals are plentiful enough that any candidate whom they deem completely unacceptable faces a formidable obstacle—and not only in the Deep South, where they are most heavily concentrated.
Evangelical Christians represented a majority of 2008 GOP primary voters in 11 of the 29 states in which exit polls were conducted. In Iowa and South Carolina, two states that along with more-secular New Hampshire have proved decisive in Republican nomination contests since 1980, evangelicals provided exactly 60 percent of the vote. In 10 other states, including many outside the Deep South, evangelicals represented between one-third and 46 percent of the vote.
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With Huckabee’s departure, that huge voting bloc lacks an obvious favorite in the emerging 2012 field. In various ways, Pawlenty, former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota (who appears close to announcing her candidacy), former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and Sarah Palin (if she runs) all have some claim on that community’s affection. But none begins with credibility or connections anywhere near Huckabee’s. “There’s a huge vacuum waiting to be filled in what is arguably the single most important dynamic and consequential constituency in the Republican primary process,” said veteran conservative activist Ralph Reed, who helped build the once-powerful Christian Coalition and is now chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition.
Among the top-tier candidates, Romney may face the steepest challenge with those voters. The former Massachusetts governor struggled enormously among evangelicals during his 2008 race, especially in the South. Romney captured 20 percent or less of the evangelical vote in five Southern contests before he quit the race on February 7; he won just 11 percent of their votes in the pivotal South Carolina primary. Outside of the South, Romney consistently ran somewhat more strongly among evangelicals, but in only six states (including his home territories of Michigan and Massachusetts) did he carry as much as 30 percent of their support. He fell far short of that in the Iowa caucus.
Romney has encountered two levels of resistance from evangelicals: doubts that he is truly committed to conservative positions on social issues such as abortion, and theological tension over his Mormon religion. That latter problem was especially pronounced in the South, where Southern Baptists and Pentecostals, two groups particularly leery of Mormonism, make up at least two-thirds of Republican evangelicals, notes John C. Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron who is an expert on religion and politics. Class issues compound Romney’s challenge. Polls suggest that his smooth, boardroom manner plays better among college-educated than noncollege Republicans, and in many places evangelicals tilt toward the latter. (See “Populists Versus Managers,” NJ, 12/18/10, p. 16.)
Evangelicals constituted 44 percent of GOP presidential primary voters in 2008.
Romney’s weakness with evangelicals, somewhat counterintuitively, explains why he might have benefited had Huckabee entered the race. In 2008, Huckabee won either a plurality or a majority of evangelicals in 15 of the 29 states with exit polls, including virtually every Southern state. Huckabee’s appeal to Southern evangelicals was so powerful that he won five states in Dixie after his late-January defeat in South Carolina essentially guaranteed that he would not capture the nomination.