MRBlog | Mike Huckabee and the Evangelical Vote

Former Arkansas Governor Huckabee addresses the third session of Republican National Convention in Tampa

By Thomas J. Whitley

Mike Huckabee today announced his bid for the White House in 2016. Seemingly, every pundit agrees on one thing about Huckabee: his base is evangelical voters. After all, as he told a crowd recently, though he doesn’t speak Spanish, he does “speak Jesus.” This allowed him to win the Iowa Caucus in 2008 (where 60% of caucus goers identify as evangelical), but may prove less beneficial during his second run for President. For starters, many others in the race also identify as evangelical, leaving Huckabee largely without a foil within the primary, at least insofar as religion is concerned. Evangelicals remain an important bloc within the Republican Party, making up 40% of Republican Primary voters, and other Republican hopefuls are also brandishing their evangelical bona fides in efforts to shore up this group. CNN described the uphill battle that Huckabee will have winning the evangelical vote this way:

He will likely be up against Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who are both sons of pastors. Then there is Ohio Gov. John Kasich, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, all of whom are highlighting their faith as they weigh presidential bids. Plus, there’s former Pennsylvania  Sen. Rick Santorum, whose appeal among evangelicals helped him win the 2012 Iowa caucuses.

The New York Times’ Upshot has also identified Huckabee’s lack of donations from top Republican donors as a significant hurdle. Of the top 250 Republican donors over the past decade, just 7% have contributed to a Huckabee campaign. This is not, however, a reflection of “the secular inclinations of top Republican donors,” as Nate Cohn asserts. Indeed, this Upshot study shows Scott Walker (48%), Marco Rubio (30%), Ted Cruz (20%), and Lindsey Graham (17%) leading in donations from these top donors from 2003-2014. Walker is the son of a pastor and recently read from a widely popular evangelical devotional at a speech, Rubio quoted the Bible in his announcement speech and regularly uses evangelical language to (possibly) distract from his Catholicism, Cruz gave his announcement speech at Liberty University as a first step in his attempted courtship of evangelicals, and Graham is courting evangelicals by telling them not to give up fighting for social issues. The move that Cohn makes of, apparently, identifying these top receivers of donations as “secular” is one that equates “evangelical” with “religious” (and one that has missed just how “evangelical” these candidates are anyway). What is more likely is that top Republican donors give money to candidates whom they think can actually win.

The Republican electorate, though, has continued to shift to the right recently, both politically and religiously. This results in evangelicals comprising a larger portion of the party’s base, which creates a more favorable landscape for those evangelicals that decide to run. Mitt Romney’s difficulty with evangelical voters in 2012 primaries seems to bear this out. Indeed, according to Pew Forum, Republicans grew their advantage over Democrats with evangelicals from 2008 to 2011, from 65%-28% to 70%-24%. And according to Gallup, the correlation between those that identify as very religious and affiliation with the Republican party has continued to strengthen.

Regardless of his standing with evangelicals, Mike Huckabee will not win the Republican nomination. What the Republican primary race will give us, though, is a chance to watch all of the candidates work to woo evangelical voters, as this is the only constituency solidly held by the Party. Without a clear leader in the evangelical vote, GOP candidates are going to try to out-evangelical each other. This aspect of the race will heat up in particular as we near the early caucus states, especially  Iowa, South Carolina, and Florida. It’s going to be a wild ride over the next 10 months, so sit back and enjoy the show.


Image via Salon