Monday, January 9, 2012

Handicapping Huntsman

Posted By on January 9, 2012, 6:18 PM

Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman has a lot riding on a strong finish in the New Hampshire Republican Primary, the one state where he’s focused almost all of his resources and time seeking to woo moderate and independent voters. But if he doesn’t finish well, is the campaign finished?---

Matthew Burbank, a professor of political science at the University of Utah, sees Huntsman as needing a strong third-place finish, at least, to survive until the next primary fight in South Carolina on Jan. 21. Which may be a tall order, considering some polls show Huntsman’s best bet would be tying for third.

According to the political site RealClearPolitics.Com, an average tally of several recent polls in New Hampshire (as of the time of this post) shows Romney taking the state by 38.5 percent, followed by Texas congressman Ron Paul at 19.8 and Huntsman and Rick Santorum sharing third, both with 11.5 percent. Burbank says Huntsman has struggled to differentiate himself from former Massachusetts governor Romney, since both candidates are similar as business-oriented, as opposed to social conservatives like Santorum and Texas Governor Rick Perry.

“Huntsman [has struggled] to deal with the fact that Romney was the bigger fish in this barrel,” Burbank says. “How he can manage a path to nomination without Romney falling down -- I can’t see it happening.”

For Burbank, the problem also is the fact that any momentum Huntsman could gain with a good showing in New Hampshire could hit a wall in South Carolina. South Carolina’s large evangelical-Christian population is more likely to vote for candidates who flex their conservative muscle more on social issues like gay marriage and abortion. Huntsman, on the other hand, has previously struck much more moderate tones for believing in the science of climate change and for supporting civil unions for gay couples.

“If there is a place for Newt [Gingrich], it might be South Carolina,” Burbank says. “Even so, I can’t see Huntsman doing particularly well in South Carolina.”

Quin Monson, a political science professor at Brigham Young University, agrees that Huntsman needs to prove his efforts in New Hampshire have paid off.

“I think he needs to get third, at minimum,” Monson says. “If he gets second, that’s a home run.”

The strong campaign organization in New Hampshire by Libertarian-leaning Paul is what Monson sees as tough competition for Huntsman to claim a top finish.

“It doesn’t look like he can overtake Paul,” Monson says. While Monson says Huntsman’s numbers are growing while Paul’s are more or less static, and that if Iowa is any indicator, Paul’s “supporters decided to support him months ago and they’re pretty die-hard, but that doesn’t appear to be the case for Huntsman.” Still, Monson says that if Huntsman finishes in the mid teens, he could live to fight again in South Carolina.

Even more than that, Monson says that Huntsman should run in South Carolina even if he doesn’t pull a strong finish in New Hampshire.

“Huntsman hasn’t caught fire, but he also hasn’t embarrassed himself,” Monson says.

In comparison, Monson says many other candidates gained excitement and momentum and then fumbled badly. In November 2011, Texas Governor Rick Perry -- during a live debate -- confidently said he would eliminate three federal agencies if elected president but was unable to remember the third agency he planned to cut. Herman Caine, the former CEO of Godfather Pizza, surged for a time as the tea-party favorite before allegations of him sexually harassing former employees mired down the candidate and forced him to suspend his campaign in December 2011.

Monson says that Huntsman could have an advantage over many of the other candidates in that he could be better positioned for 2016 or 2020 if he followed the lead of Romney, who set up his campaign machine from his first run for the White House in 2008 and has kept it running up until today.

“Should he have to drop out, it’s very respectable in that he lives to run another time without any problem,” Monson says. “All of this could be viewed as good practice for next time.”

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