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Post Leadership
Posted at 08:51 AM ET, 01/16/2012

Jon Hunstman exits race: The trouble of letting go

Jon Huntsman’s campaign, which is expected to be suspended Monday, was always a head scratcher. No one in the liberal punditry could understand why a handsome former governor of a red state with a business background who spoke fluent Mandarin couldn’t get more traction in a global economy. Few could understand why campaign veterans like John Weaver (John McCain’s former manager) would put together such an awkward campaign kick-off event and allow his candidate to veer into inexplicable Nirvana references in debates. And what was up with his daughters, anyway?

But what I find puzzling this week is why Huntsman vowed to press on following his disappointing showing in New Hampshire, where he campaigned almost exclusively running up to the first-in-the-nation primary. While he did better than the polls suggested he would, he still came in third to frontrunner Mitt Romney and second-place finisher Ron Paul. He called the results a “ticket to ride” and vowed to march on to South Carolina.

And until Sunday night, it appeared he was doing just that. Huntsman campaigned in South Carolina over the weekend without clues to the impending end. The State, South Carolina’s largest newspaper, endorsed him on Sunday. After attending church in Charleston on Sunday, Huntsman (a Mormon) told CNN “I think it’s a big deal any time you get the largest paper in the state to come out and endorse you. I thought it was well-written and well-argued.”

Huntsman is expected to say he is getting out of the race in order to rally behind the frontrunner, Mitt Romney. But the answer is also surely about money. As the race shifts from the on-the-ground retail politicking of Iowa and New Hampshire to television ad-heavy states like South Carolina and Florida, Huntsman simply didn’t have the funds to make a stand.

So why bother saying you’re going to keep running and then turn around less than two weeks later and say you’re not? Huntsman’s long-shot chances made his 2012 campaign seem to many like an exercise in positioning—either to make a name for himself for a run in 2016 with a potentially different Republican electorate or to be considered for a Republican cabinet in the case of a win this year. If that was the situation, he could have achieved either one with his decent finish in New Hampshire, and taken that moment to bow out gracefully.

My guess is that in addition to the lack of resources and Huntsman’s stated wish to help Romney earn a decisive win over his more conservative opponents, psychology and team dynamics played a big role in Huntsman’s decision. Admitting defeat is hard for any leader to do, but particularly so for those surrounded by a cast of paid political advisers cheering them on. They will all be out of a job, after all, if the campaign is suspended.

It’s hard for any leader to cut through the noise and get his team to speak candidly and openly with him at the same time they’re charged with spotlighting his qualities and shoring up his confidence. But that’s especially so in a political campaign when you’ve been built up for months, and when quitting means not just letting people down, but letting them go.

More from On Leadership:

Jon Huntsman’s best leadership trait

The rolodex that redefined power

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By  |  08:51 AM ET, 01/16/2012

 
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