In many ways, Mike Huckabee is the Rodney Dangerfield of the 2016 election.
The former Arkansas governor won the Iowa caucus in 2008 and subsequently finished second to Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainBiden steps onto global stage with high-stakes UN speech Biden falters in pledge to strengthen US alliances 20 years after 9/11, US foreign policy still struggles for balance MORE (R-Ariz.) in GOP delegates earned. In recent polls, Huckabee is holding his own against several big-name candidates who have already entered the race. And he certainly passes the “I’d like to have a beer with him” test — despite being teetotal himself. But Huckabee isn’t getting much respect as a serious threat to win the nomination.
Huckabee is widely expected to announce his candidacy in a speech in his hometown of Hope, Ark., Tuesday morning. There is little doubt Huckabee will run — a news release last week from his campaign told the media to expect a “historic event.” Another announcement on Monday outlined travel plans for the rest of the week, including trips to Iowa and South Carolina.
The path to the nomination will be difficult for the Huckabee. The 59-year-old won’t be able to raise the money that his best-funded GOP rivals will, and his fiscal record has been questioned by the influential Club for Growth.
However, early polling data indicate he is a more serious candidate than his detractors claim.
The Real Clear Politics average of polls of Republican voters in Iowa puts Huckabee ahead of Sens. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzSchumer moves to break GOP blockade on Biden's State picks Bipartisan senators to hold hearing on 'toxic conservatorships' amid Britney Spears controversy GOP senators seek to block dishonorable discharges for unvaccinated troops MORE (R-Texas) and Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulGOP political operatives indicted over illegal campaign contribution from Russian national in 2016 White House debates vaccines for air travel Senate lawmakers let frustration show with Blinken MORE (R-Ky.), who have both already launched their campaigns.
The same is true in South Carolina, where Huckabee is nestled in fourth place behind former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and home-state Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamFranken targets senators from both parties in new comedy tour Ohio Republican tests positive for breakthrough COVID-19 case Trump lawyer offered six-point plan for Pence to overturn election: book MORE.
Huckabee’s appeal rests in large part on his personality. An avuncular presence well-known to conservatives through his Fox News show, which ended in January, as well as his previous White House bid, he has carved a clear niche as an amicable social conservative.
He has played that role before. In 2008, Huckabee won over many GOP voters, as he repeatedly declared “I’m a conservative, but I’m not angry about it.” Huckabee told Jay Leno, then-host of “The Tonight Show,” that “People are looking for a presidential candidate who reminds them more of the guy they work with, rather than the guy who laid them off.”
In a memo released by Huckabee aides, strategist Bob Wickers collated a number of external polls showing the former governor’s favorability ratings among Republicans at or near the top of all likely candidates.
A nationwide Monmouth University poll in late March and early April put Huckabee’s favorability rating among Republican voters at 53 percent, ahead of Bush (49), Cruz (49), Paul (47), Walker (44), former Texas Gov. Rick Perry (42) and Florida Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioThe Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Dems attempt to tie government funding, Ida relief to debt limit Poll: Trump dominates 2024 Republican primary field Milley says calls to China were 'perfectly within the duties' of his job MORE (41).
The advantage was even more pronounced in a Fox News poll from the same period, where Huckabee’s 57 percent favorable rating was 5 percentage points ahead of that of his closest rival, Paul, and 6 points ahead of Bush.
“People don’t vote for somebody they don’t like,” said Hogan Gidley, Huckabee’s senior communications adviser. “That was one of Mitt Romney’s problems in 2012. It takes a lot of money, a lot of energy and a lot of positive stories to make someone be thought of as likable, if they’re not already thought of as likable.”
Huckabee, a former Baptist preacher, has an especially strong appeal to evangelical voters, even though others, including Walker, Cruz and former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), will also be among their suitors.
During his first run for president, Huckabee’s appeal was enough to bring influential Iowa conservative leader Bob Vander Plaats to his side early in the process. Vander Plaats ultimately chaired Huckabee’s victorious campaign in the state.
Vander Plaats recalled that, at the time, “I thought, ‘Here’s a guy I’ll never have to apologize for supporting. At the time, I didn’t think he could win. He exceeded my expectations and, if he’s honest about it, I think he probably exceeded his own expectations.”
Vander Plaats pointed out, however, that he would not decided who he’s going to endorse this year until around Thanksgiving.
Huckabee’s 2008 victory in the Iowa caucuses threw Romney’s campaign into a tailspin, but the Arkansan wasn’t able to capitalize, in part because of his lackluster fundraising.
People close to Huckabee say this time could be different. In March, a super-PAC launched to support the former governor, and Huckabee’s name recognition — far higher than it was in the early stages of 2008 — play in his favor.
An obstacle facing Huckabee in 2008 is expected to be there in 2016: His relationship with the most fiscal conservative elements of the GOP has been tense. The Club for Growth, in particular, has repeatedly criticized him. In 2012, a spokesman for the Club accused Huckabee of adopting “a sort of populist, anti-capitalism stance when he ran for president.” Huckabee has called the group “disgusting.”
Yet, anti-tax activist Grover Norquist told The Hill he has no fundamental opposition to Huckabee.
“Huckabee signed the pledge when he ran for president last time,” Norquist said, referring to the challenge issued by his group, Americans for Tax Reform, for candidates to promise not to raise taxes. “He’s a pledge-taker, and all pledge-takers are great guys,” a jocular Norquist added.
The most difficult questions surrounding Huckabee are whether he can expand his support beyond his socially conservative base, in the process vanquishing larger figures in the party such as Bush or Rubio. Even if he can, some doubt his electability in a general election.
His aides are adamant that the idea of him as a social conservative and no more is unfair.
“That is one of these media misnomers that try to pigeon-hole him” said Gidley, who noted that Huckabee had won 47 percent of the black vote during one of his gubernatorial campaigns — a figure far higher than most Republican candidates manage.
Others are not so sure about the breadth of his appeal.
“He starts off with an identifiable base within the party,” said GOP pollster David Winston, who is not affiliated with any declared or likely 2016 presidential candidates. “But, as with the other candidates, it’s nowhere near close to what is required to win.”
Huckabee aides also stress his record of beating candidates supported by Bill and Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonGOP political operatives indicted over illegal campaign contribution from Russian national in 2016 Clinton lawyer's indictment reveals 'bag of tricks' Attorney charged in Durham investigation pleads not guilty MORE back in Arkansas — a record that Gidley asserts is tantamount to “beating the Clinton machine.”