End of the Hunt: Was The Huntsman Campaign Over Before It Began?

Jon Huntsman Jr. has ended his bid for the presidency.

So what went wrong? A lot, but the simplest explanation may be the best.

Here it is from Ed Morrissey: “He governed in Utah as a conservative in a state controlled by the GOP, but talked like a centrist who despised conservatives. Huntsman’s expensive and embarrassing flop really isn’t much more complicated than that.”

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In essence, Jon Huntsman lacked the temperament necessary to be president. His announcement that he would “take the high road came had a whiff of moral arrogance,” as George F. Will put it, created a stench that never really left his campaign. As Will rightly noted, there is always a candidate who runs who doesn’t much care for the party whose nomination he is seeking.

Huntsman seemed to believe that he was above it all. In his calls for civility, he was often uncivil–saying, for example that “they pick corn in Iowa,” he told CBS’s Early Show, “and pick presidents in New Hampshire.”

He snidely tweeted, “I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy,” suggesting, if not declaring, that the primary voters who have their doubts about both theories might be batty. He called Mitt Romney, the man he is now endorsing, a “perfectly lubricated weather vane” who has been on “three sides of every issue.”

His daughters, who were campaign surrogates, attacked the other candidates with a parody of Justin Timberlake’s song “Sexy Back.”

“We’re bringing Huntsman back, the rest of them is one big circus act. We’re right behind the guy who’s right on track,” they sang in a song released in late November.

The song was an attack on all of the candidates, in the most demeaning of tones. But now Huntsman wants the candidates to stop attacking one another. Morning Joe‘s Joe Scarborough actually argued that he was “not enough of a hater to win,” but Huntsman slug mud with the best of them, especially at Ron Paul–who he tried to portray as a crazy, old uncle.

But the real reason that the Huntsman campaign faltered was its confused messaging. On the one hand, he wanted to be the conservative candidate who had backed school choice in Utah (the truth was a lot more complicated), who had cut taxes, and who could talk tough with the Chinese in Chinese; on the other hand, he was a maverick figure who rocked out in a band and drove a motorcycle and who recycled John McCain’s old slogan of “Country First.”

Tactically, he failed to divide the Mormon money backing up Mitt Romney by being something of a Mormon in Name Only. It didn’t play well in Salt Lake City that he wasn’t very religious and was raising his adopted daughter in her native Hindu faith.

He also failed to get the mainstream conservative money, because Romney had already taken it. He didn’t campaign in Iowa; he canceled his appearance at the Republican Leadership Conference; he skipped debates; and he focused too much on later states, New Hampshire and Florida, to win any of the early earned media. He failed to qualify for the ballot in Arizona and Virginia, and he made the same mistake that Rudy Giuliani had in running for mayor of Miami, only this time as Mayor of New Hampshire.

His biggest tactical error is that he had trusted John Weaver, who ran the failed presidential campaigns of John McCain in 2000 and 2008. Weaver continued the slurs against Republicans and the Right that John McCain had made his bailiwick. “There’s a simple reason our party is nowhere near being a national governing party,” Weaver told Esquire in June 2011. “No one wants to be around a bunch of cranks.” He also attacked the Republican field as the “weakest since 1940.”

But the Republicans were a governing party after 2010, and Weaver’s analysis undercut all of the efforts by Tea Partiers and limited government conservatives who had worked to make it so. The thinking was that in playing for the moderate, Independent vote, Huntsman could win enough non-Republican votes to win the primary. But that failed to consider the political realities on the ground: the country’s independents had swung decisively for the Republican party in 2010, and there was little reason for them to leave.

If the Republican field is weak in 2012, as Weaver contends, it is partly because of the weakness of Republican presidential candidates like George W. Bush and John McCain to articulate the differing principles behind their governing philosophies and those of their opponents. Additionally, the Republican losses in 2006 and 2008 make it really hard to field a good candidate when there are too few candidates who survived the Bush backlash.

Perhaps Huntsman’s largest fault is that he didn’t consider that there is already a candidate in the race who is the moderate–namely, Romney. From now until the general election, I would expect Huntsman to launch a new campaign… to be Romney’s s Secretary of State. That could be Romney’s way of defending himself from the left-wing critics who say he has turned too far to the right.