With Mike Huckabee leaving his Fox News show to consider another potential presidential run in 2016, the Southern Baptist pastor and former Arkansas governor has arguably become the the front runner to gain the Evangelical vote in what is expected to be a very crowded 2016 Republican primary. But will he be able to unite Evangelical donors and voters?
As the Washington Post points out, one of the things Huckabee should do to have a shot winning the Republican nomination is to "make a pitch for unity" among Evangelical voters to avoid having a split in the Evangelical vote like in the 2012 primary, when Evangelicals were split between former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum and Texas Gov. Rick Perry which helped Mitt Romney win the nomination.
But compared to when Huckabee ran for president in 2008, the Republican field will likely feature more social conservatives that can draw the interest of Evangelicals. Some have already begun courting Evangelical influence in early primary states like Iowa.
Tony Perkins, head of the social conservative advocacy organization Family Research Council, gives Huckabee the early edge over other social conservative candidates when it comes to gaining the support of evangelicals, although it is too early to gauge whether social conservative donors are beginning to unite around him since he has not formally announced his candidacy yet.
"I certainly think that he starts with an advantage," Perkins told The Christian Post. "I don't think it is a given, but I do think [Huckabee] has an advantage."
In taking a look at the Evangelical support that Huckabee received in the 2008 Republican presidential primary, Huckabee was able to unite much of the evangelical support. Although many remember Huckabee was able to rise to the top of the GOP field by winning the Iowa caucus, he won eight states in total, with most of them having major Evangelical influence.
According to a Washington Post chart detailing Huckabee's result in 31 state primaries up until Feb. 9 of 2008, Huckabee's percentage of the vote was within single digit percentage points of the state's Evangelical population, with the exception of 8 states.
Many have claimed that Huckabee's success in 2008 was due to lack of formidable Evangelical candidates to rival him. In 2016, he will likely have to compete with the staunch-conservative likes of Perry, Santorum, Ted Cruz, Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal and even retired neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson. Despite an even bigger social conservative candidate field, Perkins thinks Huckabee has an even bigger advantage with Evangelicals than he did last go around.
"I think he has more of an advantage this time than he did in '08. While the field may not have been as populated in 08' as it is in the 16' cycle, Huckabee is a more known quantity among Evangelicals and social conservatives than he was in 2008." Perkins said. "No question that the being on Fox News and having the highest-rated weekend show has been helpful. But it is not just having the show, it is what he did on the show and said on the show.
"One of the things that he has done is that he he has been very consistent on his positions and talking about the issues that many would not talk about," Perkins added. "He has been consistent in embracing and talking about the core values that are embodied in the Republican platform. So, he is more known for that, not just that they see him and they recognize his face, but they know what he believes and what he stands for."
Another advantage that Huckabee might have in 2016 is the possibility of a five-state Super Southern Primary on March 1, including Southern Evangelical powerhouses like Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi and Tennessee. In the 2008 primary, Huckabee won all of those states except Mississippi, who held their primary after Huckabee had dropped out.
Penny Young Nance, CEO of the social conservative women's public policy group Concerned Women For America, told The Christian Post that although Huckabee has "a deep well of support among Evangelical Christians" and understands "what is burning in their hearts," it is way too early to tell if Huckabee will fully unite Evangelical support.
"Iowa and South Carolina are a long way away and no one is a slam dunk at this point," Nance wrote. "The same folks that voted for the governor in Iowa in 2008 also cast a vote for Rick Santorum in 2012 and Ted Cruz is a hero to many of them. Much of it will depend upon his team's ability to build out their ground game in early primary states. But let's be clear, Mike is dearly, dearly loved."
Real Clear Politics reported that Huckabee supporters have commonly blamed the candidacy of Fred Thompson in 2008 for siphoning votes away from Huckabee leading to him dropping out of the race in March.
Although Perkins gives Huckabee an early edge, he does admit that Huckabee will have a couple of "rock stars" to compete against in the primary.
"I think Ted Cruz is also a factor in the mix. I've been with Ted to a number of events and he is almost like a rock star. The same is true of Ben Carson," Perkins said. "What I see is that there is a genuine hunger and desire for leadership, and I'm talking strictly among social conservatives, evangelicals, and they are looking for someone who will say it like is."