Saturday, June 11, 2011

Where is Jon Huntsman, Jr.?

One of the biggest disconnects between the way political pundits and Republican primary voters view the race involves Jon Huntsman, Jr. Huntsman recently returned from his post as U.S. Ambassador to China and began making moves toward a presidential run. After Mitch Daniels declined to run, it became the conventional wisdom among the Washington establishment that the three biggest players in the race were Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, and Huntsman. The odds on Intrade reflected this perception. All of this leaves the average Republican voter asking the question, "Where is he? Where's Huntsman?"

As you can see from the Campaign Status page, Huntsman has not yet formed an exploratory committee or announced a run for president. Until he does so, he will not even appear on the Elephant Watcher roster. Unlike Michele Bachmann, Huntsman decided he would not even appear at the June 13th primary debate, a debate which will effectively be the first of the season (many candidates bowed out of the previous one).

One of Huntsman's greatest weaknesses at the moment is his lack of name recognition. It's hard to ask a voter to support a candidate about whom they know little or nothing. Conventional wisdom says that Huntsman is one of the top three candidates in the race, yet it's unclear whether Huntsman will actually run. Perhaps he will, but if he had already decided he was going to run, he probably would have made plans to participate in the upcoming debate.

Otherwise, it's difficult to understand why a candidate with such a low profile would pass up a free, important opportunity to raise it. Though Elephant Watcher has not yet conducted a full analysis of Huntsman, it's readily apparent to all that he will be competing in New Hampshire against Romney for the "establishment candidate" position. If Huntsman appeared at the debate and did well, he could undermine Mitt Romney's campaign just as it's getting started. Or at least he could create the impression that Romney's not alone in New Hampshire. Recall that at the May 5th debate, Herman Cain alone represented the Tea Party, and he helped prevent Michele Bachmann from shoring up the Tea Party in Iowa. Huntsman could have worked toward the same goal at the upcoming debate.

Huntsman has also been very guarded in his interviews. He has assiduously avoided criticizing President Obama. When asked whether Obama is a good president, Huntsman replied, "History will show how effective he is." Of course, historians will not be the ones who decide whether Obama will get a second term; American voters will. One of the easiest ways for a candidate to get applause (and party credibility) during a primary is to attack the other party's candidate. Romney has done this, Huntsman has not. In fact, Huntsman has suggested that he need not attack Obama by name during the campaign. Either Huntsman is having trouble shedding the role of the diplomat, or he's hedging his bets.

Most likely, Huntsman is still looking for signs that his candidacy stands a chance against Romney. It's easy for a pundit to look at the field and say Huntsman has a chance, or to plunk down a few dollars in Huntsman stock on Intrade. There's little risk. For the candidate himself, there's plenty of risk. A presidential run involves an extraordinary amount of time, money, and effort. If a candidate does poorly, his reputation (and ego) take a big hit. In 2008, Rudy Giuliani failed in dramatic fashion, winning not a single state in the Republican primary. He still hasn't recovered.

Given the risk, Huntsman would probably like to see some evidence in the polls that he has support. He won't find it there. The trouble is that a candidate with low name recognition can't get good poll numbers unless he actually gets into the race. There are too many candidates. Even voters who like Huntsman will select someone else on a poll if they don't know for sure he's running. Pollsters may also decline to include Huntsman as a poll option until he does make his run official.

Primary debates form deadlines of sorts. They put definite dates into a long campaign season that the candidates otherwise calendar themselves. As Elephant Watcher anticipated, the June 13th deadline has spurred several candidates to make official announcements, and has even forced Bachmann to effectively get into the race. Huntsman has passed this time. The next primary debate is tentatively scheduled for mid-July. Huntsman will probably make his decision before then.