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Why Leading Evangelicals Are Wary Of Huckabee

Like Amy Sullivan, Marc Ambinder highlights the split between elite and grassroots social conservatives on the subject of Mike Huckabee. Marc's theory, which I agree with, is that the elites are lukewarm on Huckabee precisely because he's one of them--and, therefore, doesn't need them to reach conservative evangelical voters. Thanks to his background, he can appeal to those voters directly, which would make him much less indebted to evangelical leaders were he to become president.

I'd add that social conservative leaders generally prefer to support mainstream, front-running candidates because mainstream front-runners don't usually need much help winning elections. And when they do win, they can turn around and claim to have put them over the top. Low risk, high reward, in other words. But more marginal candidates like Huckabee need a lot of help winning, probably significantly more so than the elites can deliver. Worse, if you get behind a Huckabee and he comes up short, it exposes your movement as relatively powerless. And, of course, even if he wins you can't really take credit. So the crass calculation here is the opposite: high risk, low reward.

Once you think about it that way, I have no idea why evangelical elites would get behind Huckabee. And, indeed, it doesn't look like they will. As Marc reports:

Huckabee is not going to get it. Sources say that a rough consensus has not gelled among the 40 or so evangelical leaders who met in private this weekend to figure out what to do next. Some are resigned--not enthusiastic about, but resigned--to the candidacy of Mitt Romney. The hope is that he feel indebted to social conservatives if they rally around him and will be thus inspired to reward them somehow in office.

The other thing to note here is that, should Romney get the backing of social conservative leaders, it would set up a nearly perfect grassroots-versus-elites matchup in Iowa, where Romney currently leads and Huckabee is basically tied for second. (Amy talks about this, too.) Earlier this year I wrote that Romney represents a nearly pefect test of who (i.e., elites or ordinary voters) really has the power to crown a GOP nominee. Now that Huckabee turns out to be the preferred candidate of rank-and-file social conservatives, that test has gotten even more perfect, if such a thing is possible.

--Noam Scheiber