If indeed Huckabee announces that he won’t be running for President (and I’m still not convinced) we may soon be able to test the elite thesis that only one of the “serious” candidates (Romney, Pawlenty, Daniels, and Huntsman) can possibly win the nomination. Here’s why. A month ago, Nate Silver wrote a much cited article dividing the Republican field into the Fairfax Five and the Factional Five. The Fairfax Five was the four “serious” candidates I mentioned above + Barbour (who is not running). The Factional Five were Palin, Bachmann, Trump, Gingrich, and Paul. He noted, at the time, that the Factional Five were polling better than the Fairfax Five. At that time, the Factional Five were netting 44% of the primary vote, on average, while the Fairfax Five were netting 22% of the vote. The state of affairs today, without Barbour, is scarcely any better for the “serious” candidates. In RCP’s poll average, the Factional Five clock in at 42.8% while the Fairfax Four are at around 24.2 (Huntsman doesn’t register so I’m putting him at 1%).
The curious ingredient in the primary, as Nate Silver noted, was Mike Huckabee. Despised by the practical Republican elites and the conservative opinionmakers alike, Huckabee fit neatly in neither group. So what happens if Huckabee’s not running? Those of us inclined to favor the Fairfax Four have been entirely too blithe about our chances and strangely dismissive of a group of candidates who seem to command the loyalities of a plurality of Republican voters. Still, with Huckabee in the race or maybe in the race or sort of in the race, we had good reasons for hope. The Fairfax Four, while polling pretty anemically, are likely to have better organizations and more money. The Fairfax Four are also, to a very great degree, interchangeable. Even if there’s a plurality or even a majority of the party that pines for a non-traditional nominee, there seems to be no great consensus on what that nominee should like ideologically. If Pawlenty and Daniels start to fade, it is a fair better than all or nearly all of their support will migrate towards either Huntsman or Romney (likely whichever one is in front). It seems far less likely that one of Paul’s supporters might look at the state of the race in November ’11, note that Paul doesn’t seem to be able to get above 8 or 9%, and strategically vote for another Factional Candidate. In other words, to a certain extent, the Factional Five belong to different factions.
Huckabee’s exit (or potential exit) complicates things considerably. Because while it’s true that the Factional Five are not as ideologically and temperamentally homogenuous as the Fairfax Four, they nonetheless have some overlap. Palin collapsed and Trump sprung up to supplant her. Trump is collapsing and, suddenly, Gingrich is in double digits again, while a potentially new Factional member- Herman Cain- has received considerable buzz which may soon show up in polls. We’re in a game of whack of mole. And this means Huckabee matters. This means that in a head-to-head matchup between a Fairfax candidate and a Factional candidate, much will depend on the Huckabee supporters. Are they mostly casual Republicans who know Huckabee as the funny guy with the TV show (more likely to tilt towards the Fairfax candidates when given a choice) or are they largely evangelical, blue-collar conservatives (more likely to tilt towards the Factional candidates)? Or are they some combination thereof? Elite opinion insists that the sensible Republican party would never, ever, nominate one of the Factional candidates- but so far, elite opinion is not borne out by the numbers. The Factional Five are doing very, very well. When one of their number falters, another seems to fill the void. At some point there will be a Factional primary and a Fairfax primary, with most of the supporters of both camps gravitating towards the strongest of their number. If the Fairfax Four pick someone ill-situated to court the Huckabee supporters- if Bachmann is more appealing to the average Huckabee supporter than Daniels or Romney or Huntsman or Pawlenty- elite opinion will have proven itself to be disastrously wrong.