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Mike Huckabee has ended his campaign for president. Here's why he never took off.

Huckabee debates.
Huckabee debates.
Scott Olson/Getty Images
Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

Mike Huckabee — the 10-year governor of Arkansas and winner of the 2008 Iowa caucuses — has ended his long-shot second run for the presidency after apparently finishing a dismal ninth in Iowa this time around:

Huckabee, at first blush, had the potential to be a compelling candidate this year. In 2008, he cornered the market on evangelical voters who were suspicious of John McCain's past hostility to the religious right, Rudy Giuliani's pro-choice views and adultery, and Mitt Romney's Mormonism. Huckabee wound up beating Romney in Iowa — where evangelical turnout tends to be high in Republican caucuses — by nearly 10 points, with Fred Thompson, McCain, Ron Paul, and Giuliani trailing after.

He also gained a small but real following among certain conservative elites for his ideological heterodoxy on economic issues and his willingness to address blue-collar workers' frustrations with more than laissez-faire platitudes. As Ross Douthat, one of Huckabee's biggest boosters in 2008, wrote last year, "He’s a politician who really does get, for reasons of intuition and biography, why a lot of conservative-leaning, economically-stressed Americans support his party reluctantly, if at all."

Particularly after 2012, when Republicans learned that nominating a former finance executive worth $250 million could make them seem out of touch, there was an argument to be made that Huckabee provided a worthwhile course correction for the party in 2016.

Why Huckabee never took off

Unfortunately for Huckabee, there was another candidate running on a platform that was suspicious of immigration and fiercely protective of Social Security, Medicare, and other entitlement beloved of white elderly people: Donald Trump. And unlike Huckabee, that candidate was already a bona fide celebrity, a genius at gaining media attention, and a literal billionaire.

Huckabee's evangelical base never coalesced either. For a brief moment in late 2015, the religious right came together behind Ben Carson, but now Ted Cruz has emerged as the consensus favorite among social conservatives, with people and groups like James Dobson, the National Organization for Marriage, former Virginia Attorney General and gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli, and Iowa activist Bob Vander PlaatsHuckabee's 2008 state chair, who was a key part of his come-from-behind victory in the state that year.

He had a potential opportunity to break through during the many debates leading up the caucuses. Strong name recognition was enough to keep his poll numbers above the cutoff to participate in the first three matches along with Trump, Cruz, Carson, and other frontrunners. But he failed to make an impression and has been relegated to the earlier "undercard" debate since November.

Huckabee's failed trolling

Huckabee also tried to make a splash with the odd cynical provocation, none of which have seemed particularly convincing. There was his claim that we shouldn't let in Syrian refugees because they wouldn't want to live in Minnesota (a state home to huge Somali and Hmong refugee populations), the time he compared the Supreme Court's decision ensuring marriage equality to Dred Scott, and his ill-advised campaign against the "vulgar" Beyoncé. The most attention he ever succeeded in getting was when he claimed the Iran nuclear deal would "take the Israelis and march them to the door of the oven."

The comment — later featured as a meme in a campaign tweet — was flagrantly offensive, anti-Semitic, and insulting to victims of the Holocaust. It was also purely opportunistic. As Vox's Max Fisher noted, in the 2008 campaign Huckabee authored an article in Foreign Affairs in which he claimed, "Iran is a nation that just has to be contained," and that, "We have valuable incentives to offer Iran: trade and economic assistance, full diplomatic relations, and security guarantees."

So in 2008, Huckabee was calling for exactly the kind of diplomacy — trading economic relief for nuclear disarmament — that led to the Iran nuclear deal in 2015. But by that point, Huckabee thought that diplomatic effort was the moral equivalent of genocide. The flip-flop was transparent, cynical, and utterly unpersuasive.

Huckabee's loss this year wasn't the kind of epic humiliating flameout that Jeb Bush — like Huckabee a governor who's been out of office since 2007 — has endured. But it was still a disappointing showing from a candidate who only eight years ago was a major contender.