Open thread: Huckamania

Normally we don’t do open threads for presidential announcements but I’ve been waiting eight years to troll our Huck-hating readership with another Huckabee presidential announcement. I can wait no longer. He’s set to speak at 11 a.m. ET; Fox News, among others, will be carrying it live, I assume. Go on now and tune in. It’s magic time.

Here’s your reminder that, Hot Air’s audience notwithstanding, Republicans really, really like Mike Huckabee.

A nationwide Monmouth University poll in late March and early April put Huckabee’s favorability rating among Republican voters at 53 percent, ahead of Bush (49), Cruz (49), Paul (47), Walker (44), former Texas Gov. Rick Perry (42) and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio (41).

The advantage was even more pronounced in a Fox News poll from the same period, where Huckabee’s 57 percent favorable rating was 5 percentage points ahead of that of his closest rival, Paul, and 6 points ahead of Bush.

“People don’t vote for somebody they don’t like,” said Hogan Gidley, Huckabee’s senior communications adviser. “That was one of Mitt Romney’s problems in 2012. It takes a lot of money, a lot of energy and a lot of positive stories to make someone be thought of as likable, if they’re not already thought of as likable.”

Like he did in 2008, he’ll have Chuck Norris in his corner. Unlike 2008, he should have much more money available this time. He’s better known, he’s seen as formidable in Iowa and South Carolina, and he can take advantage of the Super PAC money machines that weren’t around during his last campaign. One socially conservative Republican billionaire could singlehandedly keep him chugging along for months. That’s the good news for Huck fans. The bad news: He’s facing a vastly stronger field this year than he did in 2008 and he’s still viewed with contempt by many fiscal conservatives. (His old nemesis, the Club for Growth, already has an attack ad against him ready to air tomorrow.) Philip Klein asks a good question. Huckabee has his strengths — name recognition, an obvious base among social cons, southern appeal — but how does he build on his 2008 numbers against a group of candidates as talented as this? Who’s voting for Mike Huckabee next year that didn’t vote for him the last time he ran?

A number of candidates have a credible pitch to offer evangelical voters, including but not limited to Ted Cruz, Scott Walker and Bobby Jindal. Walker in particular has an appeal to the sort of working class populist vote that Huckabee tapped into. If John Kasich runs, he’ll further carve up the so-called compassionate conservative vote to the extent it exists…

Back then, there was a very clear way of determining whether Huckabee could be competitive in a nominating contest — all you had to do was look at the evangelical population in the states. Where there was a critical mass of evangelical voters, Huckabee could do well. Where there wasn’t, he didn’t stand a chance. In fact, of the eight states that Huckabee won, white evangelicals made up a third or more of the overall population in six of them (Tennessee, Alabama, West Virginia, Arkansas, Kansas and Georgia). But this understates things, because the percentage of born-again or evangelical Christians in the Republican primaries are higher. In the two states he won where the overall evangelical population was below a third, evangelicals made up 60 percent (Iowa) and half (Louisiana) of the electorate.

It’s hard to see how Huckabee improves on this performance.

Yup. Huckabee has a strategic choice to make, and the right choice isn’t as obvious as you might think. He can either downplay his social conservatism in the primaries by focusing mainly on kitchen-table issues or play up his social conservatism and try to consolidate that wing of the party behind him. The first option seems to be the one that’s obviously correct: He ran as a loud-and-proud social con last time and ended up as exactly the sort of niche candidate that Klein describes. Logically this time he should try to expand his tent by pitching directly at blue-collar Republicans on economic issues like wage stagnation. Not surprisingly, his first presidential ad does exactly that, talking about improving incomes and protecting entitlements rather than gay marriage. Are there enough under-served working-class GOPers in the primaries, though, to offset the losses Huckabee might and probably will take among social cons to people like Cruz, Carson, Jindal, and Santorum? Especially, as Klein says, with Scott Walker competing hard for those votes?

Maybe, counterintuitively, Huck would be better off doubling down on his status as the GOP’s most prominent social conservative and try once again to be the undisputed evangelical champion in the primary, despite the challenge from Cruz et al. Remember, there’s a fair chance thanks to the RNC’s new rules that we’ll end up with a brokered convention this year; even if someone manages to clinch the nomination before then, the race could drag on for many months as three or four strong and stubborn Republican candidates, each backed by a different niche of the party, battle on through next spring. Huckabee’s got a better shot of being part of the final four and therefore a man with some influence over the next GOP administration, I’d guess, by trying to unite social cons behind him early than by pushing a working-class agenda and hoping there are enough votes there plus votes left over among evangelicals after Cruz, Jindal, and Carson have taken their share. Then again, thanks to the primary schedule, maybe Huckabee figures he’ll be one of the last men standing regardless. Remember, the southern states where he’s theoretically strongest — the “SEC primary,” which Huckabee calls “a gift from God” — vote early next year, on March 1st. If Huckabee wins Iowa, finishes well in South Carolina, and then cleans up in the SEC states where he’s expected to contend, social cons may end up moving towards him as their last best option no matter how heavy or light his pitch to them is during the campaign.

He won’t be the nominee but I wouldn’t underestimate him. Exit question: Rubio/Huckabee or Huckabee/Rubio?

Update: Dave Weigel’s already got that new Club for Growth attack ad.