Great news: Even beyond Iowa, early GOP primary calendar favors Huckabee

I enjoy a good “maybe Huckabee’s going to be president” story the way I enjoy a good campfire ghost story. They’re BS, we all know they’re BS, but there’s nothing more satisfying than watching the terror build in your audience as you tell it. They’re even better than “Romney’s 2016!” stories.

Well done, Scott Conroy. This one’s the political equivalent of “The Golden Arm.”

[T]here is little doubt that a substantial segment of the South Carolina Republican electorate remains culturally and ideologically aligned with Huckabee—giving him a distinct chance of success in a state where he retains a wide swath of loyal friends and advisers.

But Huckabee’s most valuable trump card in the entire 2016 calendar comes on March 1 when officials from five states in the heart of the former Confederacy—Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi and Tennessee—are taking steps toward hosting what would effectively become a Super Southern Primary.

In 2008, Huckabee was the victor in each of those southern states except for Mississippi, which held its primary a week after he dropped out of the race.

Assuming the proposal comes together, March 1 of 2016 will provide Huckabee with a major opportunity to harness momentum and lock up a significant number of delegates at a pivotal stage in the game…

“You can’t line up states better,” a Huckabee confidant said of the proposed March 1 southern primaries. “And that brings into play who the real southerner in the race is. Ted Cruz and Rick Perry, with all due respect to Texans, they’re just not southerners like an Arkansan, a Mississippian, South Carolinian or Alabaman. They’re just not.”

Imagine it. He wins big in Iowa in early February then hits the ground running in South Carolina. A few weeks later, with Ben Carson and Rick Santorum also-rans and Ted Cruz weakened after underperforming in the caucuses and New Hampshire, Huck consolidates the social conservative vote in the Palmetto State. Neither Jeb Bush nor Chris Christie will bow out in favor of the other to unite centrists and Rand Paul can’t reach far enough beyond his libertarian base due to electability concerns. Pow — Huckabee wins South Carolina. Then it’s on to Florida (which will, as usual, move its primary up a few weeks from its currently scheduled date of March 1) with Huckabee’s momentum at full steam. Under heavy pressure from the donor class, Christie finally pulls the plug in hopes that Jeb Bush will halt Huck in his home state. But it’s no good: A surging Huckabee deftly deploys every populist sling and arrow in his rhetorical arsenal to frame Florida as a battle between the people and the faceless Republican establishment machine, headed once again by the Bush family leviathan. Bam — he shocks Bush in Florida. Jeb staggers into the southern Super Primary still technically in the race yet all but done, his aura of inevitability shattered. The last obstacle for Huckabee is a determined Paul, but the great mass of Republicans who are leery of both of them eventually decide that they’re better off rolling the dice on a hawk, a strong social conservative, and a fervent supporter of Israel than on Ron Paul’s kid. Zap — Huck cleans up in the southern states, just as Conroy predicted, and the race is effectively over. Mike Huckabee is your nominee. Where’s my golden arm?

But wait. Wait. It wouldn’t happen like that. For starters, Iowa may be Huckabee’s strongest state but his competition this time will be way stiffer than it was in 2008. Carson and Santorum will each take bites out of his share; the Ron Paul army will be out in force for Rand, who’ll be keen to show he’s for real; and plenty of social cons eager to launch the candidacy of a full-spectrum conservative will ultimately decide to back Cruz instead of Huck. Huckabee will be competitive, but even if he wins, he won’t win going away; both Cruz and Paul will do well enough to make campaigning hard in South Carolina worth their while, and then you’ll have the same super-competitive dynamic on the right there as you had in Iowa. Either one of them could come back to overtake Huckabee there. Newt Gingrich finished a distant fourth in Iowa in 2012, remember, before winning South Carolina. Meanwhile, establishmentarians will be busy making sure that New Hampshire is a launching pad for their own guy, be it Bush, Christie, or someone else like Walker. Whoever loses the primary will be pressured to back the winner in the name of consolidating centrists in SC. Even if the centrist field there is divided, it won’t be as divided as righties will be among Huckabee, Cruz, Paul, and possibly Jindal and Rubio. At that point, the dynamics of the race will have changed from “Who’ll win the two big early states?” to “Who do we need to oppose in South Carolina so that we don’t end up with a total loser as nominee?” Conservatives will be eyeing someone to support who can defeat Christie or Jeb; centrists will be eyeing someone to support who can defeat Huck, Rand, or Ted. If we’re destined to end up with a “hybrid” compromise candidate between the right and center, like Walker or Rubio, South Carolina is where it’ll probably start happening.

Either way, the odds that Huck emerges from the scrum as voters are zeroing in on general-election electability is small, and smaller still when you consider him trying to win a huge state like Florida where ad time costs big bucks. Whatever else Huckabee is and will be, he won’t be the guy in the field who’s flush with cash and can buy up all the TV slots he wants. The establishment favorite will almost certainly win there. And then, yes, we’ll have the southern primaries on March 1, but so what if Huck wins there? He won there in 2008 and went nowhere; even if he is still kinda sorta in contention at that point next year, conservative antipathy to him will ultimately force a nose-holding “anyone but Huck” approach in subsequent states, with the dreaded Jeb Bush the likeliest beneficiary. That’s why so many people, me included, think Huck is ultimately more of a help to the center than to the right — he’ll split the conservative vote and galvanize a “let’s stick with the electable RINO” attitude among most of the base if he makes it deep into the primaries. And all of that assumes he’ll have the money he needs to compete. What evidence is there from Campaign 2008 to believe that he will?

Long story short, he’ll be loads of fun at the debates and will certainly hurt some more formidable candidates. He might even do well enough to land on the nominee’s VP shortlist. But the nomination itself is verrry unlikely — especially if, as expected, Mitt Romney jumps in late and destroys the field, marching right over Cruz, Walker, and Jindal to the White House. Where’s my golden arrrrrm?