Jon Huntsman believes in evolution and global warming, so can he win a Republican primary?

at 04:34 PM ET, 08/18/2011


With his wife Mary Kaye at his side former Republican Gov. Jon Huntsman, Jr., of Utah shakes hands with Debra Chouinard at Robie's Country Store as he test the waters for a possible 2012 presidential run, Saturday, May 21, 2011 in Hookset, N.H. (AP Photo/Jim Cole) (Jim Cole - AP)
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman continues to seek the moderate ground in the 2012 GOP presidential race, tweeting Thursday that he believes in evolution and climate change.

“To be clear. I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming,” read a tweet from his personal account. “Call me crazy.”

The tweet puts him in direct conflict with both the conservative base and newly-minted presidential candidate Rick Perry, who in recent days has said both that evolution is “just a theory that’s out there”and that climate change is based on data that has been manipulated by scientists.

It’s just the latest example of Huntsman, who has yet to gain traction in the 2012 GOP primary, trying to look like the adult in the room and drawing contrasts with his more conservative — and so far, more newsworthy — opponents.

But with the GOP increasingly becoming a party moving to the right, can a social moderate still win?

It’s a tough slog.

The examples of Huntsman staking out the middle ground in the GOP race are myriad.

At last week’s debate in Iowa, Huntsman seemed only too happy to point out that he favors civil unions for gay couples, repeating his position several times in the space of a couple answers.

Just prior to that, Huntsman was the lone GOP presidential candidate to support both House Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) bill raising the debt ceiling (NOT a social issue, of course) and then the final bill negotiated by congressional leaders. And a couple weeks ago, he set about defending the DREAM Act, which provides tuition assistance and a path to U.S. citizenship for the children of illegal immigrants.

GOP strategist Dan Hazelwood said Huntsman’s strategy so far amounts to throwing stuff at the wall and hoping it sticks.

“Huntsman is desperately searching for a way to become relevant,” Hazelwood said. “He needs controversy. So he is embracing the ‘MSNBC profile’ of what Republicans ought to say. He’ll make news and then be eligible for another ambassadorial post.”

But even if Huntsman causes a stir, the question is whether he is cultivating fertile soil — i.e. are there enough social moderates in the primary process to give him a winning constituency?

The answer, according to polling, is that there are social moderates in the GOP. But in order to build a successful coalition, Huntsman will have to assemble voters from a bunch of different constituencies with minority views in the party.

Recent Gallup polling showed that 41 percent of Republicans believe the effects of global warming have begun, while 44 percent believed either strictly in evolution (8 percent) or that evolution has been guided by God (36 percent). That’s not bad, but they are clearly in the minority.

Just 34 percent of Republicans supported the DREAM Act, while just 26 percent approved of the final debt ceiling deal. And CBS News polling from a year ago shows 34 percent of Republican favor civil unions.

(Nate Silver rightly points out that another 25 percent support gay marriage, and Huntsman’s position is probably good enough for them. That’s a fair point).

But the fact that none of these issues has majority support among the GOP base is striking. This means that, on each of these positions individually, Huntsman is at odds with a majority of the conservative base in some way, shape or form.

By taking positions at odds with the conservative base, he attempts to woo those smaller groups of moderates while risking alienating what tend to be more passionate voters with conservative viewpoints.

“In their hunt for uniqueness, I fear that Huntsman may make himself unelectable in a primary that is decided primarily by conservative voters and only few moderates,” said GOP pollster Tyler Harber. “An attempt to own the moderate vote will permanently relegate Huntsman to second tier. It’s not a strategy that is historically successful.”

But there are a few caveats here. The point needs to be made that Huntsman could also win votes among independents, who are allowed to vote in some Republican primaries.

Huntmsan’s campaign is banking on its performance in New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary, where it sees the strategy paying dividends.

“In the New Hampshire primary, a candidate who wants to balance the budget and also believes in science appeals to the vast majority of voters,” Huntsman spokesman Tim Miller said. “In fact, they prefer someone who is honest and authentic, rather than someone who will say anything it takes to get elected.”

The question is, even if it works and Huntsman can somehow beat Mitt Romney in New Hampshire, how does Huntsman win as the socially moderate candidate in South Carolina, Nevada and Florida?

There is some evidence of more socially-moderate Republicans winning in recent years; both George W. Bush and Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) were moderate on immigration, and Bush favored civil unions. But neither played up their moderate credentials in the primary as much as Huntsman has, either.

There’s also the question of emphasis. Social issues are hardly as hot-button as they were in the middle of last decade, and it’s clear that more voters are going to the polls motivated by economic issues, unlike the “values voters” of 2004. That bodes well for a social moderate.

But there’s also evidence that the GOP is less willing to moderate. A recent Washington Post/ABC News polling showed an increasingly conservative party, with just 31 percent of Republicans now identifying themselves as moderate or liberal. That’s the lowest that number has been in 20 years.

Huntsman’s effort to carve out this space in the 2012 GOP primary is certainly a novel strategy for today’s Republican Party. And there is plenty of valid skepticism that it will work.

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