Mike Huckabee’s Challenge

by Frank Newport

Former Arkansas governor dependent on religious vote

PRINCETON, NJ -- What's ahead for former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee? Huckabee -- an ordained Southern Baptist minister -- dominated national news coverage after his win in the Iowa Republican caucuses on Jan. 3, but he lost in New Hampshire, Nevada, Michigan, and South Carolina, and has since slipped from the forefront of national news coverage.

Gallup polling conducted this week shows that Huckabee is still in second place among Republicans nationally -- roughly tied with Mitt Romney, but behind John McCain by about 10 points. Huckabee's long-shot chance to win the GOP nomination of course depends on his being able to chalk up more wins soon. But Gallup analysis suggests that Huckabee's ability to do well in a state's GOP primary is highly related to how religious that state is. Based on this criterion, Huckabee's chances of doing well in Florida are not particularly strong, and while on Super Tuesday his chances look good in certain Southern states, he will be challenged to do well in the big-prize states of California, New York, Arizona, and New Jersey.

Huckabee's Religious Base

Huckabee's support is strongly related to church attendance, at both the state and national level. His win in Iowa -- as widely noted -- was based to a large degree on his ability to attract the strong support of more religious Iowa Republican caucus-goers. In contrast, his lackluster third-place showing in New Hampshire was related to the fact that there simply weren't enough highly religious Republicans in that state to vote for him.

For example, Gallup surveys conducted before the New Hampshire primary showed that while weekly church attenders constitute 39% of national Republicans (according to Gallup's Jan. 4-6 poll), they constitute only 24% of New Hampshire Republicans.

In fact, for Huckabee, New Hampshire was probably the worst state in which to try to continue his momentum after his win in Iowa. A 2006 Gallup analysis of more than 68,000 nationwide interviews showed that New Hampshire, along with its neighboring state of Vermont, had the lowest level of self-reported church attendance of any state measured. The average in the United States was 42% weekly or almost every week church attendance. Only 24% of New Hampshire residents said they attended weekly or almost every week. (Iowa was above the average, at 46%.)

Indeed, New Hampshire exit polls showed that while Huckabee had some strength among Republicans who were frequent church attenders, he had very little among anyone else. Huckabee got 34% of the vote among those who said they attended more than once a week, winning among that group. He received 21% among those who attended once a week -- somewhat behind McCain and Romney. Huckabee received only 6% among the rest.

South Carolina was a different story, with the highest estimated church attendance of any state in the union. Sure enough, Huckabee last week came in a strong second in that state, three points behind McCain. The Edison-Mitofsky exit poll conducted after South Carolina voting last Saturday showed that among weekly church attenders, Huckabee beat McCain by a 43% to 27% margin. Still, Huckabee's margin among this religious group of Republicans was not high enough to offset McCain's performance among those who were less religious, resulting in Huckabee's 3-point loss.

Nevada has one of the lowest rates of average church attendance in the United States, and Huckabee tied for fourth in that state's caucuses, with 8% of the vote, although he did not actively campaign there.

Florida's church attendance is slightly below average at 39%, so Huckabee -- everything else being equal -- wouldn't be predicted to do particularly well there. (Maine, with one of the lowest church attendance averages in the country, has caucuses Feb. 1. Huckabee certainly will not do well in that state.)

Five of the Super Tuesday states -- Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee, and Utah -- have average church attendance levels above 50%, well ahead of the national average. Except for Utah, which should belong to Mitt Romney given the Mormon connection, these states could be fertile territory for the Huckabee campaign.

Even if Huckabee does well in the Southern states on Feb. 5, however, the results will most likely be overwhelmed by the attention given to the delegate-rich states of California, New York, Arizona, Illinois, and New Jersey. Of these five, Illinois ties the national average on church attendance, while the other four are all well below average. And, of course, Arizona is home to McCain, further diminishing Huckabee's chances in that state.


Highly religious Republicans comprise Huckabee's main source of voting strength. He is an ordained Baptist minister who went to a Baptist college in Arkansas and attended Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. He has been able to parlay that background into a strong appeal to religious Republicans around the country, which worked well in the more religious state of Iowa. But that candidate positioning works less well in states that have below-average levels of religiosity.

Huckabee and his advisers are no doubt aware of these realities, and have tried to expand his appeal beyond moral and values issues -- talking instead about taxes and emphasizing a more general populist message compatible with his working-class background. At the same time, Huckabee's ability to win continues to depend on his ability to activate religious voters, something he was not able to do at a sufficiently high level in South Carolina to gain a victory.

A Gallup analysis of church attendance levels in forthcoming primary states suggests that -- everything else being equal -- Huckabee will have a hard time doing well in Florida, and that he will be deeply challenged in the big Super Tuesday states like New York, California, Arizona, and New Jersey, all of which have below-average church attendance levels.

Survey Methods

The results discussed in this article are based on Gallup Poll interviewing conducted in January in New Hampshire and at the national level, as well as on exit polls conducted by Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International for a consortium of media outlets. State church attendance estimates are based on an aggregate of Gallup Poll interviewing conducted in 2004 through 2006.

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