If there was anyone running for President on the Republican side in 2012 other than Mitt Romney who could have given Barack Obama a run for his money, it was Jon Huntsman.
It’s not news that the Obama team viewed Huntsman as a greater threat than other likely Republican candidates, but it is worth considering whether Huntsman would have realistically been more competitive this year than the eventual nominee. Huntsman modeled his post-2008 public persona and campaign strategy on John McCain’s presidential bid in 1999 and 2000. The question that needs to be answered here is whether someone running that sort of campaign would be better or worse-positioned to run against a slightly favored incumbent president.
For the purposes of this post, let’s imagine that Romney didn’t run in 2012 and Huntsman’s decision to focus almost all of his attention on New Hampshire wasn’t a huge mistake. As a result, Huntsman was able to win some combination of 2008 McCain and Romney voters to secure the nomination. As the sole relative moderate in the Republican field in this scenario, he would have benefited from the same divided conservative vote that aided Romney. Having managed to win the nomination, what advantages would Huntsman have had that Romney lacked in the general election?
His ability to raise money and organize a campaign would probably not be any greater. On the whole, his policy views during the primaries did not differ that greatly from Romney’s, so it’s not certain that he would have been perceived more favorably by voters that rejected Romney. Huntsman would not have had the same kind of business baggage that Romney had, but it’s possible that there are unappealing things in Huntsman’s business record that never received attention because he had not become competitive enough to warrant a lot of scrutiny. Would more voters have turned out to support Huntsman? We can’t know the answer to that, but it’s hard to see what there was about Huntsman or his message that would have inspired more people to vote.
Since he is a relative moderate on immigration, a Huntsman nomination would have tested the idea that this was one of Romney’s fatal weaknesses in the general election. Even if Huntsman’s immigration position made some significant difference, that would not have been enough by itself to secure a Republican victory. At the same time, despite occasional nods towards foreign policy restraint (notably his opposition to the Libyan war and admittedly silly “nation-building at home” rhetoric), Huntsman’s position on Iran was so belligerent that it would have made it even easier for Obama to portray him as reckless. On Iran, Huntsman would have been even easier to portray as another McCain, while at the same time Huntsman would be boxed in on criticizing the administration on foreign policy because of his service in Beijing.
While many partisans viewed Huntsman’s acceptance of the ambassadorship to China as evidence of disloyalty to party, there was another reason that it would have been a political liability in the general election. It is extremely difficult for anyone who agrees to serve in an administration to campaign against the re-election of the same president who appointed him. Barring some major disagreement that compelled someone in that position to break with the incumbent, the challenger would appear overly ambitious and opportunistic. The argument for Huntsman as a better general election candidate might seem appealing at first glance, but on closer inspection it isn’t very persuasive. Because of his position on Iran, I can easily imagine how Huntsman would have been a significantly weaker general election candidate.