Tracking Huntsman

Eoin O’Driscoll follows the political career of erstwhile presidential nominee Jon Huntsman, from family business to high politics. Illustration by Sinead Mercier.

Last Monday, Jon Huntsman pulled out of the race to become the Republican nominee for the Presidency of the US. According to Gallup polls, he was rarely able to receive national support of more than 2%. He never had a hope of receiving the nomination. That seems a great pity.
Jon Huntsman’s campaign worked hard to promote the idea that he was a different kind of candidate. Certainly, his background set him somewhat apart from his competition.

The Huntsmans are one of Utah’s wealthiest families. What started out as a family business selling eggs to grocery stores developed into a billion dollar, multinational corporation, famous for designing the containers for McDonald’s flagship product, the Big Mac. Jon Huntsman Sr. would later become involved in the Nixon administration in the Department of Health, Education and Welfare.
The Huntsmans had a fairly tumultuous time. Jon’s 16-year-old brother James was kidnapped for a ransom of $1 million and ended up being rescued by an FBI operation. Their sister Kathleen developed a drug problem and died at the age of 44.
This unusual background likely influenced the young Jon. He started a local lawn-mowing business at ten, left school early to pursue a career in music as a keyboard player with a rock band called Wizard and then worked as a Mormon missionary in Taiwan for two years; an unusual background for a future presidential contender.
Since then Jon married his wife Mary Kaye and has a family with her of five kids, including daughters adopted from China and India. He served as US Ambassador to both Singapore and China, being the youngest American to serve in such a role in over 100 years, and as Governor of Utah.
As Governor of Utah, one of America’s most conservative states, his administration was widely lauded by conservatives. Nonetheless, he was seen as one of the decided moderates in a Republican race marked by serious partisanship and strident affirmations of conservative principles.
Electoral analysis after electoral analysis showed that Huntsman was the Republican candidate most likely to beat Obama in a general election. At the same time, poll after poll showed that Huntsman’s support amongst Republicans to get their nomination was within the margin of error.
Sadly, for American politics, the very aspects of Jon Huntsman’s campaign that appealed to the American public at large were those that counted so strongly against him amongst Republican voters.
When it came to New Hampshire, where independents could vote as well as Republicans, Huntsman’s support rocketed to 16%. When he dropped out of the race, Huntsman’s support in South Carolina was around 5% and he polled at just 1% in Iowa, where only registered Republicans could vote.
The Republican race seems to be centred around which candidate is the most partisan, the most wholeheartedly committed to “conservative principles”. Santorum, Perry and Gingrich all saw massive poll surges when they were identified as the conservative banner-bearer. Note that this is in comparison to Romney, who endorses the use of waterboarding against terrorist suspects, opposes gay marriage and attacked Ted Kennedy during his 2004 Senate run for voting against the death penalty.
Huntsman was a candidate that offered a non-partisan appeal. He had served under Obama as ambassador to China, he put country first and he stood up for his principles. Unlike Romney, who has flip-flopped on every major issue he has faced, Huntsman’s campaign retained a commendable consistency and was willing to rail against the archaic stances of many in the Republican party, such as on global warming, and he refused to buy into the partisan rhetoric employed by many of his competitors.
Many of the Republican debates, thus far, have been, basically, Obama-bashing competitions. Huntsman was the one candidate who was more concerned with what he wanted and was able to do. It was a positive campaign by a candidate whose views are largely in line with those of the average American. He was a candidate with the intellectual capacity and integrity to be able to go toe to toe with Obama, a man he much respected, in a debate and hold his own. I cannot see any other possible Republican nominee doing the same.
The Republicans scuppered their election chances in 2008 by pandering to their far right fringes by selecting Sarah Palin as John McCain’s running mate. They risk doing the same again. The far right tendencies of the current slate of candidates and, more worryingly, the importance to Republican voters that their candidate is of a far right ilk, mean that the Republican party is increasingly out of touch with the general American electorate.
It is no surprise that even with Obama’s high unpopularity at the moment, many polls still put him ahead of Republican contenders, despite the fact that Obama’s re-election campaign has not even begun. It is also no surprise that despite the unpopularity of this Democratic administration, Republican Party support remains so low.
By failing to embrace Huntsman, the Republican party have shot themselves in the foot. They lost a high calibre candidate capable of contesting this election and are left with a number of avowedly partisan conservatives who have a slim chance of ever reaching the White House.