Splitting the Right

Huckabee 2016 Would Give Iowa to Christie

The GOP’s presidential field already looks full of social conservatives, and adding one more would only split the vote that opposes the establishment governor of New Jersey.

If Mike Huckabee runs for president in 2016, he could deliver the Republican nomination to a telegenic, rotund governor. The problem for Huckabee is that it won’t be him. Instead, Huckabee’s candidacy could sufficiently divide social conservatives to give Chris Christie a shot at winning the Iowa caucuses.

In an interview published in the New York Times on Friday, the former Arkansas governor hinted that he might consider a bid for in 2016. Huckabee won the Iowa caucuses in 2008 as the darling of social conservatives, but didn’t run again in 2012, reportedly for financial reasons.

Unlike 2008, when Huckabee was the last social conservative standing in a field that also included contenders such as John McCain, Mitt Romney, and Ron Paul, the 2016 campaign is set to feature a plethora of contenders firmly on the right, including Ted Cruz, Rick Santorum, and Marco Rubio.

Huckabee’s entry would blow up that field. In November, leading Iowa social conservative activist Bob Vander Plaats described the possibility of the former Arkansas governor running to The Daily Beast as “a game changer.” At the time, Vander Plaats said that while he thought Cruz would win the caucuses “going away” if they were held then, it would be an entirely different ballgame if “Mike Huckabee were in it.”

But the polling released by Huckabee shows another candidate besides Cruz and the former governor moving to the front of the line in Iowa: Chris Christie. In this poll, 14 percent of likely Iowa caucusgoers say Christie would be their top choice. That ties him with Cruz, although it still leaves the New Jersey governor well behind Huckabee, who is at 21 percent. The difference is, unlike Cruz and Huckabee, both of whom get 24 percent from a demographic the poll calls “Base Republicans”—which seems to be an analogue for the social conservative base of the GOP—Christie gets a mere 3 percent. Instead, and unsurprisingly, he draws almost all of his support from the establishment wing of the party.

That sets up a scenario where Christie could take advantage of a divided Republican field as the candidate of the pro-business, Wall Street-oriented wing of the party in 2016. Even Vander Plaats, who thought Christie had some explaining to do about his decision not to contest a court decision to legalize same-sex marriage in New Jersey, said he thought the New Jersey governor would interest caucusgoers. Christie has “a lot of aspects that people really like, boldness, bluntness,” Vander Plaats said. But he cautioned that Christie should save those traits for “issues, not people. Iowans don’t like people torn down.”

Longtime Iowa Republican insider Doug Gross echoed Vander Plaats’s praise, describing Christie as “the only mainstream guy” in the field. “There’s no reason why shouldn’t play here,” said Gross. “His style can appeal to folks.” While Christie may raise concerns among social conservatives for his comparatively moderate views, Gross said he thought many will “overlook that because he can get things done [and] crack heads.”

But not all of them might. In a Des Moines Register poll released Sunday, Christie had the highest negatives of any potential Republican running among Iowa Republicans. According to the poll, 30 percent had mostly or very unfavorable views of Christie. But Christie still had favorable ratings comparable to most of the other Republicans, despite spending very little time in the Hawkeye State. Considering that most of the publicity around Christie with potential caucusgoers has focused on his pre-election embrace of President Obama and his relative moderation, the governor could make up a lot of ground by actively campaigning.

Huckabee still might not run after his trial balloon. It was announced Monday night that he was starting a news website called Huckabee Post, a venture that might preclude a return to electoral politics (though being a media tycoon never stopped William Randolph Hearst). Yet a field without Huckabee still would likely include plenty of other representatives of the social conservative wing of the GOP, both major contenders as well as more marginal candidates such as Dr. Ben Carson, all of whom would be concentrating on Iowa. Christie would likely be the only establishment candidate running and could take advantage of the divided field—after all, that was how Romney almost won Iowa in 2012.