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Huntsman’s Problem Wasn’t Just That He Was Perceived as a Moderate



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Obama campaign manager Jim Messina told Politico today that, “I think [Jon] Huntsman would have been a very tough candidate,” in the general election.

Huntsman is fairly young (52), and it’s certainly not impossible that despite his failure this time around, he might make another go at a presidential run in the future. The narrative that seems to have built up around him was that he was too moderate for the current GOP, and that’s why he lost. But while that’s a nice, neat narrative, I don’t think it really addresses why in fact Huntsman lost. Huntsman was widely perceived as moderate, but his actual positions and background — robust support for the Ryan plan, being pro-life (and having personally adopted with his wife two daughters), and a red-state governor who had instituted a flat tax — were hardly that moderate.  

But his tone was (there was that infamous tweet: “To be clear, I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy,”), and that seemed to be enough to convince some New Hampshire voters — although it wasn’t clear that they were planning on voting for Huntsman in November if he was elected. From a never-published (thanks for dropping out the night before this was going to run, Huntsman!) piece I did, including some interviews of Granite State voters who supported Huntsman:

Another surprising trait about those attending [Huntsman's victory party in Manchester, N.H.] was the willingness among some to still consider voting for President Obama in the fall, not a hallmark trait of GOP primary voters.  “It would be more difficult if Huntsman was the nominee. If not, I’m probably going to vote for the president as of right now, but that is not solid as we move forward,” said Tony Huard, a New Hampshire independent. “Too early to tell,” said Donald Byrne, another Granite State independent at Huntsman’s party, said of how he would vote in the general election. Byrne, who voted for Joe Biden in the 2008 Democratic primary and for Obama in the election, isn’t ready to completely write off the President quite yet.  Deborah Wilder, a small-business owner from San Mateo, California, was so impressed by Huntsman after meeting him in December that she became a campaign volunteer. “I would be hard-pressed to vote for Obama,” said Wilder, who flew out for the party, “but obviously, I’m going to have to wait and see who the [Republican] candidate is.”

According to the exit poll data, of the 4 percent of self-identified Democrats who voted in the New Hampshire GOP primary, 40 percent backed Huntsman. Among independent voters (47 percent of voters in the primary), 22 percent backed Huntsman. In contrast, among Republicans (about half of primary voters), 10 percent voted for Huntsman. 

But let’s say that Huntsman manages to not go out of his way to irritate conservatives (a bizarre decision, considering how many of his policies were conservative) rhetorically in the future, and then launches another run. Would he fare better? I’m not sure he would. Huntsman never struck me as a great politician. His campaign, from the various news accounts, appears to have been a fiasco. A good politician knows how to run a campaign — or at least hire people who can (and fire those who are showing themselves incompetent). As the stories are dribbling out from the Romney campaign (such as about Orca), it’s becoming clearer that the race might have been closer if the campaign itself had been better run. And while Huntsman was never as awkward as Mitt Romney, he never struck me as a remarkable speaker, or one who was able to really draw an audience into a speech. (To be fair, I primarily saw Huntsman in his early days on the national stage, not as much later, so he may have improved.) Obviously, it’s unlikely Republicans will nominate another Obama. But charisma isn’t irrelevant, either.

It fits into the whole tea-party narrative to depict Huntsman as a moderate who was banished by the wild GOP. But that ignores that Huntsman was in some ways to the right of Mitt Romney (Utah’s health-care system relied on exchanges, not an individual mandate, and Huntsman came out for the Ryan plan, as I recall, long before Romney did). 



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