There was no doubt that when Mike Huckabee announced his candidacy for president, God would come up. After all, Huckabee is an ordained Baptist minister who made a strong showing in his 2008 race in large part because of the support of evangelical voters. Huckabee made crystal clear that he’s running to get the support of those evangelical voters again.
Huckabee talked about how much he prayed in school as a child in Hope, Arkansas, where he “learned that this exceptional country could only be explained by the Providence of God.” He asserted that “the Supreme Court is not the Supreme Being, and they can’t overturn the laws of nature or of nature’s God,” a clear reference to same-sex marriage.
But for someone who wants to be the candidate of evangelicals, Huckabee doesn’t seem to understand the place of evangelicals in today’s GOP.
Huckabee’s most fundamental miscalculation has two parts: first, that there can be one candidate who garners the support of most religious right voters, and second, that even if he pulled that off, it would be enough to make him the party’s nominee (for the purposes of this discussion I’m going to talk about evangelicals and the religious right interchangeably, but they’re obviously not exactly the same thing).
If you’re an evangelical Republican voter looking for a presidential candidate who shares your values, you’re faced with an embarrassment of riches in this election. In addition to Huckabee, you’ve got Scott Walker (the son of a Baptist minister), Rick Santorum (whose commitment to “traditional values” will stack up against anyone’s), Rick Perry (whose best-remembered ad from four years ago began, “I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m a Christian,” tapping into the religious right’s narrative of oppression), Bobby Jindal (who holds prayer rallies), and other candidates like Ted Cruz and Ben Carson who wear their piety on their sleeves. With all that to choose from, it will simply be impossible for any one of them to become the candidate of the religious right.
Huckabee might say, well, I was pretty much the candidate of the religious right in 2008, and I won Iowa! Indeed he did — and then he lost the nomination, as did Rick Santorum four years later following the same script. Evangelicals are particularly important in that first caucus state, but far less so in the rest of the country, which is why their chosen Iowa candidate almost never wins. They made up 57 percent of GOP Iowa caucus voters in 2012 — but only 43 percent of Romney’s voters in the general election, and only 26 percent of general election voters overall.
Furthermore, there are plenty of evangelicals who aren’t so attracted to the old-school style of a man who wrote columns as a teenager warning against the evils of dancing. Here’s how religion reporter Sarah Posner describes the feelings of many evangelicals, particularly younger ones:
These evangelicals are listening for a candidate who can signal he is “one of us” without pandering. Both evangelical and Catholic candidates who have earned the culture warrior label for their strident pronouncements—Ted Cruz, Rick Santorum, or Mike Huckabee — are seen as embarrassing embodiments of stereotypes these conservative Christians would like to shed.
When the entertainment at Huckabee’s announcement event is Tony Orlando singing “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree” — a song that topped the charts 42 years ago — he isn’t exactly reaching out to a new generation.
Does this mean that the evangelical vote no longer matters in the Republican primaries? Not at all. It still matters a great deal, but the fact that evangelicals won’t vote as a bloc means they matter in a different way. If any of the candidates can get at least some of their votes, then every candidate has an interest in speaking to them (or pandering to them, depending on how you want to think about it). So their concerns and their issues will be on all the candidates’ minds and on their lips.
The evangelical vote is still important, but there won’t be an evangelical champion — Mike Huckabee, or anyone else. Yes, an evangelical such as Scott Walker might be elected president. But he wouldn’t be the evangelicals’ chosen candidate. No one will.