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Huckabee Could Make It Easier For A More Moderate Republican To Win In 2016

Mike Huckabee left the comfy confines of Fox News on Saturday to think about running for president in 2016. Should Huckabee decide to run, he would reshape the Republican field, dividing the vote of more conservative primary voters and making it easier for a center-right candidate, such as Jeb Bush or Chris Christie, to win.

But to get the nomination, Huckabee would need to greatly expand his 2008 base, and there aren’t signs he can do that. In other words, Huckabee probably isn’t a strong enough candidate to win the GOP nomination, but he is strong enough to prevent another conservative candidate from winning it.

Huckabee showed little ability to win outside of the South when there was another conservative in the race, i.e. Mitt Romney (Romney ran as the conservative alternative to John McCain and Rudy Giuliani in 2008). Huckabee’s average in the South was 35 percent when Romney and McCain were also competing; here’s how he did elsewhere:

Iowa 34%
Alaska 22 
North Dakota 20 
Minnesota 20 
Illinois 16 
Michigan 16 
Delaware 15 
Montana 15 
Colorado 13 
California 12 
New Hampshire 11 
New York 11 
New Jersey
Average 13%

Huckabee’s best performances outside of the South came in the caucuses in Iowa (34 percent) and Alaska (22 percent). On average, he won just 13 percent of the vote in the non-Southern or border states listed in the table. Huckabee did perform better once Romney left the race, but Huckabee never won a contest outside the South or border states.

That’s a major problem when trying to win nationally. The vast majority (70 percent) of Republican delegates are from outside the former Confederate states. Given that many non-Southern states have minimum thresholds to win delegates or will be winner take all, Huckabee would win few delegates in them if he performs anything like he did in 2008. In fact, his path to a majority of delegates would probably be shut out no matter how well he does in the South.

And there is little evidence he’ll do better in these states than he did in 2008. Unlike Romney, who inherited establishment support in 2012, or McCain, who inherited it in 2008, there is no indication Huckabee will pick up new bases of support.

Those Republicans looking to nominate the most electable conservative will probably be turned off by Huckabee’s statements on social issues. He opposes abortion, even in cases of rape or incest. His statements on HIV/AIDS haven’t aged well either.

Huckabee has also managed to irk economic conservatives. The Club for Growth has attacked Huckabee for his record on spending and taxes as Arkansas’s governor. He has spoken in support of cap and trade.

It’s tough to win without those looking to nominate the most electable conservative; it’s nearly impossible to try and win without them and economic conservatives.

But Huckabee’s strong base of support among born-again and evangelical Christians could thwart a conservative alternative to candidates like Bush and Christie. For a very conservative Republican candidate to emerge as the nominee, he would probably have to win the Iowa caucuses or New Hampshire primary given the effect of momentum in presidential primaries. Iowa is the more likely possibility given that 47 percent of Iowa caucus voters were very conservative in 2012, compared to just 21 percent in New Hampshire’s primary.

Huckabee won the Iowa caucuses in 2008, and he still maintains a base of support in the state. But winning Iowa — as 2008 demonstrated — isn’t enough to win the conservative candidate the nomination. And if the conservative vote were split in Iowa, a more moderate candidate could sneak through to a win there. That nearly happened in 2012, when Romney lost Iowa by only a barn’s worth of people despite winning just 25 percent of the vote. In 1996, it did happen: Bob Dole was able to pull off an Iowa caucuses win with only 26 percent.

By entering the race, Huckabee would make it that much more likely that a more mainstream candidate will win the nomination by dominating in those states that McCain and Romney did. Huckabee will probably be strong enough to take some conservative voters, but not strong enough to have a high chance of winning.

Harry Enten was a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.