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Why Huntsman Reached the End of the Road

Why Huntsman Reached the End of the Road

By Sean Trende - January 16, 2012


Former Utah governor Jon Huntsman has become the second Republican voted off the island in the 2012 Republican primary campaign (we don't count Tim Pawlenty or Herman Cain, both of whom dropped out before voting began). His decision late Sunday to suspend his campaign is a bit jarring, given that he had insisted after a disappointing third place finish in New Hampshire that he was staying in through South Carolina.

I suspect that what happened is a combination of two things. First, financial reality set in. If you don’t think a candidate is going to win, you’re hard pressed to write him a $2,500 check. At this point, you have to believe that anyone interested in a relatively moderate Republican nominee would be writing checks to Mitt Romney. While Huntsman could have self-funded, he didn’t seem especially eager to do so on such a high-risk endeavor.

Second, as Michael Barone has observed, if you have a fraction of a percentage point chance of being president, you may as well stay in. And there really was a scenario for Huntsman to become the nominee, however unlikely. Perry and Gingrich were amping up the Bain attacks on Romney. If those attacks had taken hold, Huntsman had a chance to emerge as the moderate candidate in Florida, where he had initially located his campaign. So it made sense to stick around for a week or so to see what happened. The problem: It doesn’t appear that the attacks have so much as dented Romney’s numbers. Given this, Huntsman’s one path to the nomination seems to have disappeared.

As to the future of the Republican primary campaign, I think there are three takeaways:

This obviously benefits Romney. In the New Hampshire exit poll, Huntsman overperformed among older voters, college grads, high earners and moderate/liberal voters. Those were also Romney’s strongest groups. It is very difficult to see them lining up behind, say, Perry going forward. While Huntsman’s 3 percent or so of the overall vote may not seem like much, you have to remember that with Ron Paul seemingly in for the long haul and pulling in 10 to 15 percent, Romney only needs to improve his vote share another 10 points or so to garner an unbeatable plurality of support. So those three percentage points are awfully significant (especially since Huntsman has endorsed the front-runner).

Expect to see Huntsman in a Romney administration, should there be one. I didn’t list this above as a reason for Huntsman dropping out, because I think it’s much more speculative than my suggestions concerning why Huntsman dropped out when he did. But my view is that you can never be too cynical about politicians. I suspect that Huntsman’s team has been negotiating a political future for the former ambassador to China. There is any number of positions he could conceivably fill -- State, Commerce, the U.S. trade representative spring immediately to mind -- and I have to think that Huntsman received a pretty decent assurance that he’ll have an appointment should Romney win (as well as a prime speaking slot at the Republican convention).

Never has a candidate been as ill-served by his advisers as Huntsman was this year. Huntsman actually began his candidacy with a pretty good angle on the nomination. Despite a few apostasies on things like global warming and civil unions (the latter representing a position that is probably more popular in GOP circles than many suspect), his overall profile was fairly conservative. Having actually governed a state gave him a leg up on many other nominees.

The biggest problem was his service in the Obama administration. Even that was fixable, in my view. Huntsman simply had to run as the administration’s biggest critic, lambasting Obama and company for their incompetence, and for bungling what he saw as its early promise. Indeed, I thought his eventual explanation about serving the president when asked was a decent one that would resonate with many conservatives’ sense of patriotic duty.

He could then claim, plausibly, that after having seen the inner workings of the Obama government, he was more convinced than ever that it was time for change in Washington, D.C. In other words, he was well-positioned to be the administration’s top critic.

But instead of taking this angle, he hired John McCain’s advisers from 2000, who proceeded to re-run that ill-fated campaign. Huntsman chose to run as a maverick-y Republican, criticizing the GOP for many of its positions and expressing a longing for a “sane” Republican Party. It’s almost as if Huntsman had been out of the country for two years and had missed the entire Tea Party movement. (Oh, wait . . .)

Remember, after all, that McCain lost in 2000, and that that was a very different time. In a world where Christine O’Donnell, Linda McMahon, Carl Paladino, Sharron Angle and Ken Buck won primaries in blue-to-purple states, it’s safe to say that calling the Republican Party insane was not going to wear well. It was borderline malpractice to run such a campaign in 2012 -- and doubly so with someone who really could have tapped into the mood of the party based on his actual record of governance, and against an incredibly weak GOP field. 

Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at strende@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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