Jon Huntsman and what might have been
By Chris Cillizza,
Any time a candidate for office comes up short of winning, there’s always a game of “what if” that goes on. After all, no one gets into a race — sacrificing their life in the process — if they don’t think they can win.
Former Utah governor Jon Huntsman’s decision to end his presidential campaign today is sure to stoke talk of whether there was ever a way for him to be a relevant force in the race.
Republican presidential candidate former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman descends stairs during an event at Virginia's on King restaurant, Sunday, Jan. 15, 2012, in Charleston, S.C. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
* What if...Huntsman never went to China: Huntsman was clearly gearing up to run for office — either in 2012 or 2016 — when he was tapped by President Obama to serve as Ambassador to China in early 2009.
Huntsman’s decision to take the job, which he cast as putting his country before his party, doomed him when he decided to run for president in 2012. Huntsman could never make that “country first” argument stick with Republican primary voters who saw that service as evidence that he was insufficiently conservative.
Had Huntsman never gone to China, he would have spent the next several years as governor of Utah, likely bolstering his conservative credentials. And, his apostasies on things like civil unions (he supports them) would not have been nearly as big a deal with Republican voters without his service in the Obama Administration looming in the background.
* What if....Huntsman hadn’t skipped Iowa: Huntsman made the decision early on that he wouldn’t run an active campaign in Iowa, citing his late start as the main reason.
While Huntsman would almost certainly not have won Iowa, he would also likely have kept former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney from winning. (Romney beat former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum by just 8 votes in the caucuses.)
And, if Romney lost Iowa, he probably wouldn’t have carried any momentum — or not nearly as much momentum — heading into the New Hampshire primary, which he won convincingly last week.
In order for Huntsman to be relevant in the race, he needed a vulnerable Romney. And Iowa was the entire field’s best chance to show that Romney’s frontrunner status was shaky at best. Huntsman couldn’t have beaten Romney in Iowa, but he could have kept the former Massachusetts governor from winning. (For what it’s worth, Huntsman insisted he had “no regrets” about skipping Iowa.)
* What if....Huntsman spent more of his own money: When Huntsman initially entered the race, one of his major selling points — at least to the political class — was that he had considerable personal wealth.
But, Huntsman seemed resistant to spending heavily out of his own pocket; as of the end of the September, he had donated $2.2 million to the campaign. While that accounted for roughly half of all the money he raised during that time, it still wasn’t the massive sort of cash infusion that would have allowed him to flood the New Hampshire airwaves early and often.
By the end, Huntsman was out of money — he didn’t run a single ad in South Carolina — and didn’t seem to want to write himself another check.
* What if....Huntsman had positioned himself as a conservative: From the start, Huntsman was cast as a sort of maverick by his campaign team. (Remember the guy riding the motorcycle through the desert?)
But what if the campaign had been centered on his (mostly) conservative record in Utah — flat tax anyone? — and his support for the budget proposed by Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan.
Instead, Huntsman made waves for bashing his party on their climate change skepticism and repeatedly insisting that the time had come for a fundamental reforming of what it meant to be a Republican.
While Huntsman would never have likely gotten to the ideological right of people like Santorum or Texas Gov. Rick Perry, he certainly could have competed for at least a portion of the conservative vote if he had positioned himself more as a committed conservative rather than a reform-minded maverick.