Ron Brownstein of the National Journal argues today that the departure of former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee from the race for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination is bad news for Mitt Romney.
He notes that Mr. Huckabee enjoyed solid support from evangelical voters in 2008, but he wasn’t someone who, at the end of the day, could move beyond that base and secure the nomination. So having him as a foil in 2012 would have (probably) worked to Mr. Romney’s advantage.
Mr. Brownstein is arguably one of the best political analysts in the country. He’s one of the six or seven people that anyone who is interested in American politics reads carefully and regularly. So what he writes carries a lot of weight among political professionals.
The guts of his column today are typically informative. He reminds everyone how important the support of evangelical Christians is to winning the GOP nomination:
Even many Republicans underestimate the centrality of evangelical voters in the GOP’s nominating process. In 2008, self-identified evangelical Christians constituted 44 per cent 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 per cent of the vote. In 10 other states, including many outside the Deep South, evangelicals represented between one-third and 46 per cent of the vote.
He goes on to note that evangelical voters distrust Mr. Romney for two reasons: they don’t think he shares their passion on social issues like abortion (and they’re right about that) and they’re wigged out by the fact that he is a Mormon. Neither of these two things is going to change.
If a candidate like former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty can raise his game to the national level, he might consolidate evangelical support while also drawing votes from “traditional” Republican voters. If Mr. Pawlenty can do that, then Mr. Brownstein is right: Mitt Romney is doomed.
The question is whether Mr. Pawlenty (or any of the other GOP presidential candidates) can do that. We’ll find that out, right away, in the Iowa caucuses. As Mr. Brownstein notes, 60 per cent of the Iowans who attend the caucuses are likely to be evangelical Christians. If a plurality of them move in one direction (to, say, Pawlenty), then that will be bad news for Romney. If the vote splinters, Romney should roll into New Hampshire (the first primary state) in pretty good shape.
Our view is that Mr. Pawlenty has yet to show he can move the needle. Right now, the candidates who are attracting the most interest from evangelicals are Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin, with former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum also making some headway. As politics famously abhors a vacuum, it is certainly possible that other candidates who can credibly compete for evangelical support — like Texas Governor Rick Perry and South Carolina US Senator Jim DeMint — will jump into the race.
The more candidates competing for evangelical support, the less likely it is that one of them will emerge as the clear favourite of the evangelical community on the night the votes are counted in Iowa. Had Mr. Huckabee run, he almost certainly would have emerged as the clear favourite of evangelicals and the winner of the Iowa caucuses. That in turn would have enabled him to basically lock up the South. And if you’re the choice of the South in GOP presidential politics, you win the nomination.
So we would argue that Mr. Huckabee’s departure from the race was good news for Mr. Romney. It splintered his opposition. It gives him a better shot at winning the Iowa caucuses. If he wins Iowa and New Hampshire, he will be very hard to stop.
We’ll see who’s right. In the meantime, if you’re interested in politics, bookmark Ron Brownstein.