Huckabee, the Southern Bell Tolls for Thee...

By Al Giordano

I haven’t seen anybody ring the obvious bell on yesterday’s “straw poll” results at the Republican Southern Leadership Conference, but the key word there is Southern, and (the Southern Belle?) tolls for thee, Mike Huckabee.

Members of the RSLC are primarily from the South, and even in the case of candidates busing in their supporters to stack the poll, most of those folks had to come from either the South or from Texas to go cast a ballot in Louisiana.

Rewind two years to the February 9, 2008 primary in the Bayou State and Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee won 43 percent of the vote to 41 percent for John McCain. Mitt Romney garnered 6 percent and Ron Paul got 5 percent.

Huckabee also won Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee and Arkansas in ’08, so for him to come in fifth place in this straw poll that took place among party activists in what should be his geographical base territory is nothing short of devastating for his 2012 presidential prospects. It probably also indicates that he's not working that hard for it, which would firm up speculation that he doesn't plan on running anyway.

I had speculated here a few days ago here some reasons why Huckabee would be unlikely to become a candidate, and yesterday’s results increase that likelihood, leaving Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich to duke it out to be the Christian Right’s standard bearer in the Anybody-but-Mitt primaries and caucuses.

Additionally, scratch the surface of the first round results (where Romney edged out US Rep. Ron Paul, of Texas, by one vote to win the straw poll) and there are two candidates that significantly advanced their causes yesterday: Romney and Gingrich.

The deep south is the toughest region for Romney (for the Evangelical bias against Mormons that we discussed earlier this week) and so he astro-turfed an “Evangelicals for Mitt” group to carry his water for him at the RSLC convention while skipping out on it himself to avoid any YouTube moments of getting booed or otherwise embarrassed. That Romney is this well organized in his weakest region two years out signals that, A. He’s running a fifty state strategy, and, B. Money can buy you love.

I still believe Romney has little to no chance of winning the nomination because the anti-Mitt vote will coalesce behind the last surviving alternative to defeat him.

What Gingrich showed yesterday was that he can go toe to toe with Palin in the sub-primary to be that candidate. And if Huckabee doesn’t run, Gingrich becomes heir apparent to be the Southern candidate in the contest, which gives him a Super Tuesday February 2012 shot to knock Palin out of the game altogether and spend the rest of the primaries as the Anti-Mitt.

Furthermore, this straw poll included a second choice ballot that, when combined with the first choice results, shows a first tier troika emerging between Romney, Palin and Gingrich. And that will lead to some delicious moments as they try to tear each other to pieces. (And the nasty meter a lso would rise dramatically without Huckabee - the archetypal middle child always ready to play the Rodney King "can't we all get along?" role - on the debate stage.)

Follow my reasoning on this, and then I’ll add some chatter about Ron Paul and Rick Perry, among others.

Here were the first round results of the straw poll:

Initial Choice(If the primary election for president were held today, for whom would you vote?)

Mitt Romney (439) 24 percent

Ron Paul (438)
24 percent

Sarah Palin (330) 18 percent

Newt Gingrich (321)
18 percent

Mike Huckabee (80)
4 percent

Tim Pawlenty (54) 3 percent

Mike Pence  (58)
3 percent

Rick Santorum (41) 2 percent

Gary Johnson (3) 1 percent

Come on! Four percent, Mike? So, not only is Huckabee plunging down into the second tier quicksand, but Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty can’t get out of it: two wooly mammoths in the tar pit, sloshing around with Indiana US Rep. Mike Pence, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum and former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson. (And if South Dakota Sen. John Thune, or former RNC chair Haley Barbour jump in, they, too, will start from the tar pit and have to navigate their way up to the first tier due to lack of name recognition.)

But now look at the second choices of the Southern party faithful:

Second Choice
(Who would be your second choice in the Republican Primary Election for president?)

Newt Gingrich (339) 20 percent 

Sarah Palin (332)
20 percent

Mitt Romney (242)
14 percent

Mike Huckabee (178)
11 percent

Mike Pence (141)
8 percent

Rick Santorum (125) 7 percent

Tim Pawlenty (114)
7 percent

Gary Johnson (104)
6 percent

Ron Paul (98)
6 percent

The second ballot is interesting on many levels, because it shows the comfort factor that Romney, Gingrich and Palin have, each, among about 38 percent of the attendees. It also shows who has room to grow, and who benefits as other candidates decline to run or stumble early on. Primary voters tend to coalesce around frontrunners with every new primary or caucus.

The sharp drop off for Ron Paul – from the stellar to the cellar – from ballot one to ballot two pretty much explains why the nomination is out of reach for him on this planet. In 2008, Paul got about five percent of the total GOP primary votes nationwide, bringing him a paltry 35 delegates to the convention. Even if he were to double that in two years it still would leave him out of the real fight.

To best analyze these second ballot results we first have to look at where the Paul voters went. About 80 were so enthusiastic for their man that they didn’t bother to cast a second ballot. Another 104 went to Johnson, the most truly libertarian of the remaining candidates (and that pretty much describes what percent – about a quarter – of Paul voters are true blue libertarians, as opposed to the hooligan yahoos they’ve thrown in with). The rest likely divided up between Pence, Pawlenty, Gingrich and Palin, probably in that order, with maybe some flat tax believers falling into the Huckabee camp. I doubt that many Paul votes, if any, went to Romney, with the man-of-the-system cologne that he exudes.

Now, let’s look at the combined percentages from the two ballots cast:

Mitt Romney (681) 20 percent

Sarah Palin (662) 19 percent

Newt Gingrich (660) 19 percent

Ron Paul (536) 16 percent

Mike Huckabee (258) 8 percent

Mike Pence (199)
6 percent

Tim Pawlenty (168) 5 percent

Rick Santorum (166) 5 percent

Gary Johnson (107) 3 percent

So there are your two tiers, plus Ron Paul off in a tier of his own.

As for Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who spoke at the conference but asked for his name to be kept off the straw ballot, I watched some of his speech and could barely sit through it. Know why? Because to every American that is not Texan, the guy sounds exactly like George W. Bush. (And as Mark Halperin noted, practically nobody even mentioned Bush during their speeches; the nightmare is still too fresh.) Sure, Perry, if he runs, will have lots of money, he’ll have all the Texas delegates (which could make him a convention kingmaker), but he will not be able to avoid reminding everyone else of Dubya, which even for Republicans that liked Bush still sounds Pavlov’s Bell as a signifier for electoral defeat. So while I’m sympathetic to the commenters here who warned not to underestimate Perry, I see his path to national traction to be very difficult because of the ghost of Bush.

If I had to pick which candidate I’d rather be in a three-way first tier between Romney, Palin and Gingrich, my money would be on Newt today. He is less likely to say something jaw-droppingly stupid than Palin, and far less likely to be perceived as flip-flopping, sterile, or ideologically weak as Romney.

The computer keeps spitting out the name Gingrich from many different scenarios that could happen in the long two years ahead. That said, you betcha that the oppo research teams of Romney and Palin are working overtime to find the perfect skeleton in Newt’s closet. But, also, Gingrich’s oppo research monkeys are likewise digging up dirt on the other two. And I ask you: which of the three is the most nasty and Machiavellian when it comes to throwing the dirt, and knowing exactly when to dish it?

Also, for Field Hands and political junkies in the New York City area, I’ve just added another event to my upcoming visit there: A gathering of NYC Kossacks and bloggers on Tuesday, April 20, 6 p.m. at Zanzibar, to the left of midtown. Should be a great free-wheeling discussion. Maybe I'll bring my bookie from the Bronx to coordinate a 2012 GOP nomination betting pool...

Update: Tom Schaller at 538 offers some similar observations over Huckabee's tanking and adds his "gut feeling that Gingrich is the GOP's 2012 sleeper candidate."


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About Al Giordano


Publisher, Narco News.

Reporting on the United States at The Field.

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