Governor Jon Huntsman is still very much running for president, so writing his campaign’s obituary may be a bit premature. But for all intents and purposes, the Huntsman campaign is flat lining. Some would say it never had a pulse.
Matt Yglesias thinks as much, and he also thinks the only reason Huntsman was anointed as a legitimate candidate is because of the media’s inability to call Rick Perry out for promoting creationism.
“In general, it’s important to appreciate that intra-party conflict plays a very special role in the American media. Operating in a kind of truth-free zone where there’s no objective reality, the closest thing to a ‘fact’ is when all members of one party and some members of the other party agree on something. Consequently, there’s never a greater media darling than a member of congress from a contested district who’s willing to take time out of his busy day of legislating and winning re-election to go whine about the party leadership to a reporter from Roll Call or Politico. When someone does it in the course of a national political campaign, it’s an even bigger deal! . . . None of this would be necessary if journalists felt more comfortable running headlines like ‘Rick Perry Denies Truth Of All Of Modern Biology’ absent an added frisson of horse race conflict.”
I have another theory as to why the media covered Jon Huntsman’s campaign: because, on paper, he was a great candidate. Sterling economic record in a chief executive role, good looks, a personal fortune (courtesy of Dad), foreign policy chops that blow everyone in the field out of the water, and- most importantly- the positions and personality to challenge Obama in a general election.
The follow up question then becomes: why did the Huntsman campaign fail so miserably?
In my mind, there are two main reasons. First, he ran away from himself. Second, he couldn’t mobilize anyone.
Huntsman is a moderate, no matter how much he claims otherwise. This should have been a strength in this Republican primary, but by running away from it, Huntsman turned it into a weakness.
Barack Obama won the 2008 election in part because he won more independents than John McCain. Does Rick Perry appeal to independents? Does Michelle Bachmann? Does Mitt Romney appeal to anyone?
Huntsman could appeal to independents in a general election because he is moderate. He is also calm, relatable, and an above average speaker. On paper, he is better equipped to challenge Obama than any other candidate. No one else is particularly well suited to do so.
Huntsman should have been preaching electability from day one. Republican primary voters care about the economy. Huntsman is conservative on the economy, and has great credentials. Voters don’t really care about much else. The message for the primary should have been “Conservative on the things that matter.” Instead, the Huntsman campaign adopted the strategy of saying “conservative” as much as possible, and hoped no one would notice that Huntsman is about equal to Michelle Bachmann’s gaze at her State of the Union—just right of center.
This decision to try to run as a conservative was a huge mistake. It was the equivalent of a Porsche trying to win a race with a bunch of monster trucks by ramming into them out of the starting gate. The Porsche gets crushed in that situation. And that’s exactly what happened to Huntsman.
Some of my liberal colleagues at the HPR might disagree with me, but most Republican voters aren’t stupid. You can call me naïve, but I believe that they, like normal people, are receptive to rational arguments, especially if those arguments are as simple as “if you want to beat Obama, vote for me.”
Of course, that didn’t happen, and Huntsman has failed to gain any traction because of it. Staff screw ups and intracampaign squabbling didn’t help. Jeff Weaver, by some accounts a cancer of a political consultant, is probably at least partly to blame. But ultimately Huntsman should have realized that he needed to distinguish himself as the candidate who could unseat the president. He has begun to go after Romney in recent days, but it is sure to be too little too late.
The other big factor in Huntsman’s failure is his inability to mobilize support. Of the voters who have heard of Huntsman (only 46%), half like him. While that’s not real good, the real problem is that only 5% register as “strongly favorable.” Is it because Huntsman is unexciting? Possibly. More likely, it is the simple fact that it is tough to mobilize moderates, and the groups that should be Huntsman’s primary constituency (to use Richard Fenno’s definition of the term) —Mormons and Utes—are difficult to mobilize with another Mormon in the race.
The media will likely cover the death of Huntsman’s campaign with less vigor than they did its birth. When that story finally runs, it might be a story of the media wasting our time. I’m inclined to think that it will instead be a story of unfulfilled potential, of the hazards of being in the middle, and of the even greater hazards of being in the middle and pretending you’re not.