But Huckabee showed extremely limited appeal beyond that community. In 15 states last time, he attracted no more than single-digit support among non-evangelical voters. Unless Huckabee could have radically extended his reach in 2012, that profile suggests that he would have had enough of a floor to threaten Romney but probably too low a ceiling to beat him.
So, Huckabee might have helped Romney by siphoning off the voters most skeptical of him—evangelical Christians—into a candidacy that ultimately was unlikely to succeed. Huckabee had the potential, Ayres notes, of denying to any other candidate “the voters Romney will find most difficult to get.” In the same way, the Arkansan might have again dominated the Deep South primaries—where Romney faces the biggest hurdles—and thus taken them off the board for any other competitor.
Now, those evangelical voters and Southern states are in play again and are a potentially bigger risk to Romney if they support a candidate with a greater chance than Huckabee of incorporating them into a broader coalition. “The reaction of a lot of people is that Huckabee being out is good for Romney,” Green says. “But, strategically, it might create a more serious problem for him.”
Almost all GOP analysts agree that Huckabee’s departure increases the odds that evangelical voters will fragment early on, especially in Iowa, whose caucuses will kick off the Republican race. But if the contest eventually reduces to Romney and one rival—either in the South Carolina primary or immediately after it—Huckabee’s exit increases the possibility that evangelicals will unify against Romney, unless he can expand his appeal with them.
That two-stage process is essentially what happened in the 2000 GOP primary. Despite George W. Bush’s strong credentials as a social conservative, evangelicals in Iowa splintered among him, Steve Forbes, Alan Keyes, and Gary Bauer. However, once the contest hardened into a two-man race between Bush and John McCain, evangelicals provided the Texas governor more than two-thirds of their votes in states from Michigan and Ohio to Virginia, California, and—most important—South Carolina; that dynamic was a critical element in the conservative convergence that lifted Bush to victory.
None of the 2012 candidates are as well positioned as Bush was to consolidate evangelicals while simultaneously reaching beyond them. Some observers believe, however, that Pawlenty has the best chance. With his pedigree as a blue-state governor, he won’t face the cultural resistance that Huckabee did outside the South. And as a Catholic who converted to evangelical Protestantism, Pawlenty has an opportunity to forge cultural connections with the conservative Christians who powered Huckabee’s candidacy. “He’s very comfortable talking about his faith,” Alex Conant, a Pawlenty spokesman, said. “We have spent a lot of time reaching out to evangelical voters in Iowa already, going to faith forums and meeting with pastors and Huckabee supporters, and we will do that everywhere.”
At the least, Huckabee’s decision will pressure Romney to improve on his meager 2008 showing among evangelical Christians and prevent them from solidifying behind any particular rival.
The best scenario for Romney is that more evangelicals take a second look at him now that Huckabee’s big shadow is removed. “The challenge that Romney poses for [these] voters is, if you are judging based on faith, judge how I live my life versus doctrine or creed,” says GOP consultant Kevin Madden, who advised Romney in 2008.
The current environment may help Romney win a new hearing from more evangelicals. In any GOP primary, not all evangelical voters choose their candidates solely on social concerns. Next year, all Republican voters, including evangelicals, will probably tilt even more than usual toward economic and fiscal issues, party insiders believe. “This is an economic election, not a social-issues election,” says Warren Tompkins, a longtime South Carolina GOP consultant who advised Romney last time and is neutral now.
That’s undoubtedly correct. But if the evangelical cornerstone of the Republican coalition remains leery of Romney next year, he may look back at Huckabee’s departure this week as a moment that unexpectedly increased, rather than diminished, his exposure to a challenge grounded in the pews.
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This article appears in the May 21, 2011, edition of National Journal.