But so far, the Mormon issue doesn’t seem to be nagging Huntsman the way it did Romney four years ago. Did Romney’s 2008 candidacy itself help allay anti-Mormon prejudice? Is there something different about the way they embrace their faith? Do the two men discuss this issue differently? All of the above? ~Erin McPike and Scott Conroy
One answer is that conservatives largely don’t take Huntsman seriously as a presidential candidate, so they’re not going to spend any time thinking about how his religion might or might not affect his electability in the primaries. Most conservatives, myself included, take for granted that his service in the Obama administration, his open disdain for conservative activists, and his relatively few, but notable departures from the party line make him politically radioactive in the GOP. If that weren’t enough, his fawning letters of praise to the President and Bill Clinton would be enough to make even some potentially sympathetic Republicans feel slightly ill. In other words, Huntsman’s candidacy is beset by so many ordinary problems with conservative voters that hardly anyone bothers to think about how his religion might complicate things for him. As far as conservatives are concerned, he would already be such a hopeless case that dwelling on his religion might seem a bit like kicking a man while he’s down.
Perhaps the most obvious answer why Huntsman’s religion has received less attention as a liability is that the people writing about him have paid less attention to it. Huntsman’s candidacy is almost entirely a creation of mainstream media outlets, and he has been pushed as a viable and “electable” candidate for almost as long as Obama has been in office. To that end, the journalists that seem keen on promoting Huntsman have an interest in minimizing the importance of obstacles for Huntsman that they may have emphasized or exaggerated when they affected Romney. Romney went out of his way to go from being the acceptable, moderate Republican from Massachusetts to try to make himself as a conservative demagogue and culture warrior. By contrast, Huntsman began in deepest-”red” Utah and over time has been giving indications that he is interested in moving towards the all-important “center.” Someone keen to fight cultural battles is naturally going to come under scrutiny for his religious beliefs a lot more than someone who sees such things as distractions at best and mistakes at worst.
Unlike Romney, Huntsman has made it clear that he has no interest in portraying himself as a particularly religious person, and he doesn’t want to stress social issues in any campaign that he runs. He is apparently looking to fill the moderate Republican space in the race, or so his supporters hope, and seems to be doing everything to model his would-be campaign on McCain’s 2000 and 2008 campaigns (i.e., rally independent voters in New Hampshire, and then try to go from there). This New York Times report confirms that Huntsman backers want to do exactly this:
The strategy for Mr. Huntsman, if he decides to run, would most likely begin in New Hampshire. His supporters believe he should follow a path similar to that taken by Mr. McCain: ignore the Iowa caucuses, where social conservatives have a louder voice, and try to compete aggressively in South Carolina, where Mr. Romney has struggled to win over voters.
Elsewhere in their article, McPike and Conroy promote the idea that Nikki Haley’s election proves that South Carolina will be more hospitable to Huntsman, but this overlooks that Haley’s difficulty was overcome because she had chosen to convert and become an evangelical Christian. The Haley example is one that undermines the argument for Huntsman in South Carolina. Haley may have had an “unconventional” background, but she very publicly identified herself with evangelical Christianity. Huntsman can’t do that, and he’s not interested in talking about these things publicly even if he had the option.
Romney’s religion became a subject of discussion partly because Romney wanted to dwell on themes of generic faith and “values” in his speeches, but he had no interest in saying anything more specific about his faith. His campaign never figured out a good way to manage this tension. Huntsman’s solution is to make no pretense of appealing to evangelicals and social conservatives, and the voters he hopes to reach are those with much less interest in a candidate’s religion or in religious observance itself. Huntsman expects to do best with secular and moderate Republican voters, and for most of these voters Huntsman’s Mormonism is irrelevant or at most a curious biographical detail. In that respect, Huntsman’s religion may be less politically relevant than Romney’s, but it is still going to be a problem for him.