Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Does Huntsman Have a Shot to Win the GOP Nomination?

Jon Huntsman, former Utah Governor and Ambassador to China, had a nice op-ed in the WSJ today in which he really sounded like a true free market conservative, who is willing to make the hard decisions:

Unless we make hard decisions now, in less than a decade every dollar of federal revenue will go to covering the costs of Medicare, Social Security and interest payments on our debt. We'll sink even deeper in debt to pay for everything else, from national security to disaster relief. American families will fall behind the economic security enjoyed by previous generations. Our country will fall behind the productivity of other countries. Our currency will be debased. Our influence in the world will wane. Our security will be more precarious.

Some argue for half-measures, or for delaying the inevitable because the politics are too hard. But delay is a decision to let America decline. The longer we wait, the harder our choices become.

The debt ceiling must be raised this summer to cover the government's massive borrowing, and we must make reductions in government spending a condition for increasing the debt ceiling. This will provide responsible leaders the opportunity to reduce, reform, and in some cases end government programs—including some popular but unaffordable subsidies for agriculture and energy—in order to save the trillions, not billions, necessary to make possible a future as bright as our past. It also means reforming entitlement programs that won't deliver promised benefits to retirees without changes that take account of the inescapable reality that we have too few workers supporting too many retirees.

His record in Utah, for which he received a "B" from the Cato Institute makes me relatively certain that he is sincere when he says he is for putting our fiscal house in order.  After all, unlike most schools and universities there is definitely no grade inflation at Cato, where they have no problem handing out C's, D's and F's.  I only have one small issue with his op-ed, that is when he says:

I admire Congressman Paul Ryan's honest attempt to save Medicare. Those who disagree with his approach incur a moral responsibility to propose reforms that would ensure Medicare's ability to meet its responsibilities to retirees without imposing an unaffordable tax burden on future generations of Americans.

In politispeak, that pretty much means nothing.  Admiring an honest attempt?  That sort of sounds like he is saying "close but no cigar".  Or it's like when a southerner uses the phrase "bless her (or his) heart" when someone can't seem to get something right.   In other venues, like Good Morning America, he was much more supportive of Ryan's plan so I'm a bit confused about what he is saying about it, but this doesn't necessarily mean anything.  When you are President, you want to have your own plan, not just sign on to someone else's.  Also, Ryan's plan isn't gospel and doesn't even touch Social Security which definitely needs changing.  The Republican Study Committee, a group of very conservative House members, came up with their own plan themselves that goes even farther.

The big problem for Huntsman, though, is whether he actually has a path to victory in the GOP nomination race.  There is no national primary, instead, there is a gauntlet of caucuses and primaries that are must win for a candidate to be able to even make it in the race to Super Tuesday.  You need to win in Iowa, New Hampshire or South Carolina in order to get the funding and the volunteers that are necessary to continue with the campaign.  In fact, since the inception of the South Carolina primary in 1980, no GOP candidate has won the nomination without first winning South Carolina.  So when judging Huntsman's candidacy, you really shouldn't be thinking about whether GOP voters in general will vote for him but whether GOP voters in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina will vote for him.  Let's take the states one by one:

Iowa - The Iowa Caucuses are really not very representative.  It's not like a primary where you can just go in, vote for your candidate and then go home.  It's kind of a like a town hall format, where you have to go to your precinct caucus, listen to people talk about the different candidates and only then, after some hours, actually vote.  In some precincts it's even done by a show of hands (no secret ballot there).  In the end, the person who wins the Iowa caucus is the person who can rent the most buses to get the most supporters to the precincts.  Still, it does create momentum for the winner and can easily kill the campaigns of the losers.  Remember Howard Dean?  Coming in #3, coupled with the Dean Scream, killed his campaign.  And when Hillary lost to Obama in 2008, she almost immediately started having financial issues as donors started switching en masse to Obama.  For Huntsman, he really has an uphill battle.  According to Public Policy Polling, a Democratic leaning polling firm, he had a total of 1 supporter in Iowa in their sample.  Not 1%.  1.  Remember that Pawlenty is from a neighboring state and Iowa has a disproportionate number of evangelicals who will likely vote for a socially conservative candidate (Huntsman is relatively libertarian socially).  There is already talk about him skipping Iowa, which just puts more pressure on him to do well in New Hampshire and South Carolina.

New Hampshire - Huntsman could actually do well there given the libertarian streak in the state, though Ron Paul and Gary Johnson will likely take some of those votes.  Also, Romney is from the neighboring state and while he did not win the 2008 primary, it was close 37% to 31%, and McCain had been a darling of New Hampshire GOP voters since he upset W in 2000.  New Hampshire voters are notoriously independent though so if Hunstman comes across as a real free market type who has an independent streak, he could win it.

South Carolina - As mentioned above, the primary here has picked the GOP nominee since its inception in 1980.  If at the point of the South Carolina primary, Huntsman has not won either Iowa or New Hampshire, he is probably in trouble.  First, the winner(s) of Iowa and New Hampshire will have momentum, in media coverage, in funding and in volunteer support.  It will be unbelievably difficult for Huntsman to win after two losses like that.  Plus, whoever Jim DeMint, endorses in the race will have the wind at their backs.  Jim DeMint is a tea-partier so he will probably choose the candidate who is most conservative and electable in the race.  That is probably not Huntsman.  Unless Rick Perry from Texas runs, I would think he would endorse Pawlenty, especially if he has won Iowa already.

Basically, while clearly a quality candidate, thanks to the details of the primary process, Huntsman seems like a real longshot.  But who knows, stranger things have happened.  It will be extremely important for him to do well in the upcoming debates of the candidates and not to sound wishy washy about the issues.

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