Partly in response to Michael Dougherty’s profile, Jim Antle wonders why Jon Huntsman didn’t run to the right. What advantage can there be in a Republican candidate saying, as Huntsman did on Twitter, that he believes in evolution and trusts science on global warming? The nonexistence of man-made “climate change” and rejection of evolution are articles of faith for large blocs of the GOP base, after all, and there don’t seem to be blocs of any size within the party that insist on the contrary view.
Huntsman’s approach looks a little like John McCain’s in 2000. That didn’t win McCain the nomination, but it did win him the New Hampshire primary. The wager the Huntsman people — former McCain adviser John Weaver in particular — may be making is that if their man can take down Romney in the Granite State and Perry or Bachmann wins Iowa, primary voters in places like Florida and perhaps even South Carolina (which has a less consistently right-wing primary base than you’d think; this is the party and the state that gives us Lindsey Graham, after all) will face a choice between a candidate who seems like a strong general-election contender and a candidate who seems like a base-pleasing flop.
Looking at the candidates the GOP has actually nominated over the past 20 years — two Bushes, Dole, and McCain — makes it clear that “moderates” have a way of winning in the end. A second scenario in which Huntsman could pull through would see Bachmann and Perry both surviving Iowa but subsequently draining momentum from one another, much as Romney (then a movement darling, believe it or not) and Huckabee bled one another in the 2008 fight with McCain.
All of this depends on Romney collapsing, and I think that’s unlikely. It also puts a great deal of weight on New Hampshire’s independent tendencies, and that seems like a losing bet as well, quite apart from McCain’s win in 2000. But it’s not clear that a more conventional strategy of running to Romney’s right would do any better: voters who want red meat were never going to take the former Obama ambassador Huntsman over the likes of Perry and Bachmann. On paper, being another candidate on Romney’s right might seem like a stronger, safer position, but there’s a danger of being lost in the herd.
Huntsman is perhaps also taking a cue from Ron Paul. Confronting Giuliani over foreign policy and terrorism should have been electoral suicide by any conventional measure. But it separated Paul from also-rans like Tom Tancredo and Sam Brownback and galvanized a segment of the base that didn’t even exist before that moment. Huntsman is no Paul, but when you’re at 2 percent in the polls, what do you have to lose? There’s no cost, and as Paul demonstrated, there can be unexpected gains. (And in terms of internal campaign dynamics, there’s sometimes a fundraising benefit in playing to the campaign’s base rather than the party’s base.)
Huntsman was a longshot before and he’s a longshot after his “maverick” tweeting — but now he’s a longshot with more attention and a brand distinct from the rest of the field. The latter is more than Pawlenty ever managed, and we saw where campaigning as a conventional conservative took him.