Mike Huckabee wants the world to know that he just might run for president in 2016.
"The Lord knows, but he’s not telling just yet," Huckabee said in response to a question Thursday about whether he will get in the race. You can almost feel the winking knowingness Huckabee is trying to convey with that quote. And, just in case you didn't get the message, Huckabee's pollster sent out two surveys Friday afternoon showing the former Arkansas governor at the front of the 2016 field in Iowa and South Carolina.
Some within the political world will see the Huckabee candidacy as a big deal. After all, Huckabee was the story of the 2008 Republican primary race -- going from a total unknown to the winner of the Iowa caucuses and the guy who finished second to Arizona Sen. John McCain in the nomination fight. And, all of the things that helped propel Huckabee in that race -- his charisma, his social conservative credentials -- are still in place.
But, at least in this case, past isn't prologue for Huckabee. A detailed look at his 2008 race combined with the current political environment and the likely makeup of the 2016 GOP field suggest Huckabee's path to the nomination would be very, very difficult.
Those problems begin with Huckabee's inability or disinterest -- or some combination of both -- to raise the tens of millions that will function as an opening bid for the nomination in two years time. For the totality of his 2008 race, Huckabee collected $16 million. By contrast, Mitt Romney raised almost $114 million ($44.6 million came from his own pocket). Longshot Ron Paul raised $35 million, more than double Huckabee's total. Huckabee's fundraising struggles in 2008 made it tough for him to build campaign organizations beyond Iowa, meaning that his victory in the first caucus translated into far less than it might have. Since leaving that race, Huckabee has done little to cultivate a donor network that would form the backbone of a race where he would need $30 million -- at a minimum -- to stay within shouting distance of the top tier candidates. And there's no evidence that he will suddenly make doing so a priority.
Then there is the fact that until the final few weeks before the Iowa caucuses no one in the field thought Huckabee was an at-all serious candidate -- meaning that they ignored him most of the time. McCain and Romney went after each other hammer and tongs in every debate, on the airwaves and anywhere else they could battle. Huckabee was free to run a positive campaign focused on his resume (former pastor, former governor) and the idea that he was the antidote to the nastiness between McCain and Romney.
Things would be very different this time around. No one would underestimate Huckabee or ignore him. And, his record as governor of Arkansas, which was largely ignored in '08, would be gone through with a fine-toothed comb by the likes of the fiscally conservative Club For Growth, which loathes Huckabee. How much so? So much so that even the rumors of a potential Huckabee candidacy led the Club to send around its 2008 white paper that attacked him as a serial tax raiser. There'd be plenty more where that came from if Huckabee did run.
Finally, the 2016 field is likely to look very little like the 2008 field. In the '08 race, Huckabee had a relatively direct path to be the social conservative favorite son. McCain had no interest in being that person. Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani was a proud social moderate. Romney tried to portray himself as a true social conservative but his past statements on abortion coupled with his Mormonism made evangelicals skeptical of him. Paul's focus on fiscal and foreign policy plus the sense he had no chance kept social conservatives from heading his way. Huckabee was the only credible choice for these voters.
Not so in 2016. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker -- all top tier contenders likely to run -- will compete for the votes of social conservatives in Iowa and South Carolina. That's a lot of candidates going for a piece of the electorate that Huckabee largely had to himself -- with apologies to Alan Keyes -- when he last ran. And with Huckabee's well-demonstrated fundraising problems, it's hard to see how he beats out that trio for a majority of social conservative votes.
Huckabee caught lightning in a bottle in 2008. He came far closer than many people realize to being the nominee. (If Fred Thompson drops out before the South Carolina primary, Huckabee wins it. Then it's a totally different race.) But, the unique set of circumstances that made Huckabee surprisingly viable five years ago won't exist in 2016. And, the problems for Huckabee that race exposed haven't been solved. All of that means that if he runs, he's a longshot.