Mike Huckabee has long been a favorite politician of American evangelical Christians. The evangelical vote powered him to an upset victory in the Iowa caucuses in 2008. It kept his presidential hopes afloat during the subsequent long battle of the 2008 campaign. It’s a big reason his poll numbers remained relatively high – as in, double digits – at the start of the 2016 presidential season.
So now that Mr. Huckabee’s officially declared he’s running for president again, it’s worth revisiting this question: Why do evangelical voters like (maybe love) him so much?
The answer might lie in these two words: “bubbas” and “bubbleland.”
That’s the social dichotomy that Huckabee himself uses to describe the United States. It splits the nation into categories of just good plain folks, who like fishing and four-wheelers, grits and gravy; and the coastal elites who don’t understand social conservative values.
Bubbas, and bubbleland. Washington, D.C., is the political capital of bubbleland. New York is its financial and entertainment center.
No politician speaks to this cultural divide like the former Arkansas governor.
Evangelicals don’t doubt he’s one of them. A Southern Baptist minister, he’s readied himself for the current run by attending a series of “Pastors and Pew” events run by David Lane, an evangelical leader who urges his followers to take a more active role in the political process.
Huckabee has a genius for expressing Evangelicals' positions on social issues with direct and compelling language. For instance, he’s said that asking Christians to approve of same-sex marriage is “like asking someone who’s Jewish to start serving bacon-wrapped shrimp in their deli.”
Yet he remains somehow genial, even when he’s arguing with Jon Stewart about Mr. Stewart’s charge that he’s a hypocrite for slamming Beyoncé lyrics while playing bass with shock rocker Ted Nugent himself. In that sense, he’s simply a gifted retail politician.
On “The Daily Show” earlier this year, Huckabee elaborated on his theory that Beyoncé is not a fit role model for little girls.
“Do you know any parent who has a daughter who says, ‘Honey, if you make really good grades, someday when you are 12 or 13 we’ll get you your own stripper pole.' I mean come on, Jon, we don’t do that in our culture,” said Huckabee.
That’s simply part of Huckabee’s “bubba” appeal. Sure, the cultural elites think he’s made a mistake by attacking a widely popular singer. He sees it as simply solidifying his bona fides with his base.
“You all do realize that Huckabee is TRYING to beat east coast elite types into making the Case for Beyonce. You’re not scoring on him ...," tweeted Bloomberg political analyst David Weigel earlier this year.
And white evangelical voters remain a formidable GOP voting bloc. In some ways, they’re still the most important of all Republican factions. They’re upwards of 40 percent of GOP primary voters. They’re 60 percent of the Republicans in the Iowa caucuses – or at least, they have been in the past. They’re a majority of the GOP in many Southern states. There’s a reason Huckabee outright won the Louisiana primary in 2008.
But here’s Huckabee’s problem: He’s no longer the Evangelicals’ only choice.
Their hearts may be with him. They may love to hear him say – as he did on a recent conservative radio show – that parents might want to delay any kids’ plans to join the military until there’s a new commander in chief.
There are other good conservative choices in the wide 2016 field who appeal to Evangelicals. Huck’s hold on their votes is slipping.
You can see that in his standing in the polls. At the moment, he’s dropped into single digits – down to about 7.5 percent in the RealClearPolitics rolling average of major polls.
He still draws a disproportionate share of Evangelicals, according to a recent Quinnipiac survey, with an 11 percent share of white, born-again Christians. But he’s not their top choice. Jeb Bush gets 12 percent. Marco Rubio gets 15 percent. Ted Cruz is right on Huck’s heels, with 10 percent.
That’s only one survey. Huckabee will probably get some sort of boost from Tuesday’s candidacy announcement. But it will have to be a big boost to put Huckabee back into any sort of contention. In Iowa, site of his famous 2008 victory, he’s now fourth, according to a late April survey by Public Policy Polling. It’s possible that Huckabee missed his real chance by not running in 2012, when there were fewer candidates who appealed to religious conservatives.