Requiescat in Pace, Jon Huntsman for President Campaign

Well, it looks like Iowa and New Hampshire both get to claim one official victim in the 2012 GOP Presidential sweepstakes as Jon Huntsman is announcing today that he is going to be the first to follow Michele Bachmann out the door. Huntsman never managed to get off the floor nationally, and wasn’t able to make enough of a dent in New Hampshire (the one state he actively campaigned in) to gain sufficient momentum and money to carry his campaign forward. So he made one of the few sensible political choices he’s made in this run and decided to drop out while he’s not too far behind.

Governor Huntsman was good enough to sit down and talk with me at relative length during the campaign season (see here), and I came away liking Huntsman much more than I did going in. However, even in that interview you could see the seeds of political tone-deafness that ultimately doomed Huntsman’s campaign. For instance, Huntsman is the only Presidential candidate I am aware of who has kicked off his campaign by taking a job working for the incumbent he hopes to defeat. I cannot for the life of me understand why or how Huntsman was unable to perceive how this would play with the GOP primary electorate. Ultimately, I get how and why Huntsman took the job as ambassador to China; he should have understood, however, that it was a choice that would make it impossible for him to run for President in 2012.

Huntsman’s other early missteps likewise threw him in the political cellar, from which he ultimately never emerged. The first of these was no doubt the hiring of John Weaver, who inexplicably continues to get jobs working for Republicans who want to get elected. At this point, the message is clear to everyone who is paying attention – hiring John Weaver to manage your Presidential campaign is a giant middle finger to the GOP conservative base. Even John McCain’s campaign did not take off until he canned Weaver. I suppose it is possible that someone might be able to win a GOP primary election somewhere while actively angering conservatives, but it is not going to happen in a Presidential primary. Huntsman’s failure to put any distance between himself and Weaver’s controversial comments (that essentially called the TEA Party a freakshow) was another major factor in his inability to get off the ground quickly.

Third, Huntsman’s inability to modulate himself, even at all, was ultimately harmful. A prime example of this quality came during my interview with him, when I gave him an explicit opportunity to walk back the infamous “call me crazy” tweet. I certainly wasn’t expecting a full Romney flip-flop on global warming, but here was a prime opportunity for Huntsman to at least apologize for the tone of the tweet, or for failing to consider how people might perceive it, and he flatly refused. As Erick has noted here many times before, Huntsman simply refused to play the game that has to be played. I guess to some extent that’s admirable but in this context it involved refusing to apologize to potentially insulted voters, which is a suboptimal election strategy.

As sad as it is to say, the ability to read your electorate politically matters a lot to a potential President, and even more to a Presidential nominee. At every step along the way of his early campaign, Huntsman displayed a stunning lack of ability to perform this basic function which, if it had not tripped him up so early in the primary, would have doomed him in the general or made him a horribly ineffective President. Huntsman was Exhibit A for why, although I only support Governors as nominees, not all Governors are suited to national politics.

Finally, even if he could have overcome these intrinsic weaknesses and mistakes, this election was simply the wrong time and the wrong moment for a candidate like Huntsman. Let us be honest: the GOP primary electorate is ticked off right now. They are ticked off at Obama, and they are equally ticked off at Republicans in Congress. Right now, the electorate more than ever wants someone who can convey an ability to kick butt and take names against any and all comers who refuse to aggressively shrink the size and scope of government, and to address the spiraling debt problem in this country. Regardless of his politics, people are desperate for the tone of a guy like Christie (who has likely blown his one and only shot at the Presidency) right now, not the soft, manicured gentle (and probably unintentional) condescension of a Jon Huntsman.

Accordingly, nearly everything Huntsman did in public fell flat on its face this election season. His jokes bombed at the debates. People mistook his attempts at empathy with ordinary people for smugness (in Huntsman’s defense, very few people who grow up very rich can pull this off with any other result). The overwhelming feedback Huntsman provoked in his debate and media performances – despite his admirable record as Governor – was “get this guy off the stage.” His ultimate doom was indicated when almost half his voters in NH indicated that they were satisfied with the job Barack Obama was doing as President. This was the surest indication yet that in this year, at this time and place, Jon Huntsman’s campaign for the Republican nomination was going nowhere.

Governor Huntsman seemed like a decent guy and his record led many to believe that he had promise. But due to his own failings as a candidate and the mood of the electorate overall, he never stood a reasonable chance in this election.