Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman received exactly zero percent in a new Washington Post/Bloomberg poll released this week — worse than any other listed candidate.
And in RealClearPolitics’s average of the five most recent national polls, he scored just 1.8 percent — also last of all listed candidates.
This wasn’t supposed to happen.
When his campaign launched, the media immediately called him a front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination, noting his strong record in Utah and weighty résumé, with stints in four administrations. Even President Obama’s political adviser, David Plouffe, confessed that Huntsman’s political chops made him “queasy,” and Intrade — the political betting market — bought the hype. Huntsman quickly shot up to No. 2, behind former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
But his campaign, thus far, has featured bizarre decisions and uneven rhetoric that’s been at various points both serious and silly — to the end that neither effect is really achieved. And Huntsman, the candidate who was supposed to be the paragon of steady strength, has flailed like a political rookie without any of the charisma that novelty normally evokes.
Here’s a look back at the Huntsman campaign and what went wrong:
Is he serious or silly?
As befits a former ambassador, Huntsman has tried casting himself as the candidate who disdains political theater.
During the party’s recent debate over the role of Mormonism, he urged rhetorical restraint and cautioned against losing sleep over a theological argument that has little to do with governing or the country’s political fate.
“Discussion of Mormonism,” he told a town hall last week in New Hampshire, “doesn’t create additional jobs, doesn’t expand our economic base … I have no idea why people are wasting so much political-capital bandwidth on this issue. It’s nonsense.”
But Huntsman has shown himself more than willing to veer from the high-minded to the high-ratings. In August, he leapt to, sparked and profited from another debate that had little to do with how the country is governed or who should lead it — one, in fact, that’s also somewhat religious.
After Texas Gov. Rick Perry expressed some skepticism over evolution, Huntsman derisively tweeted: “To be clear. I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy.”
And with that snide foray into the “drama and theater” of politics, he added more Twitter followers in one day than any other politician except Obama, Scientific American reported.
That’s not the only time the serious candidate descended into the snarky. During a CNN presidential debate, he made an obscure joke about musician Kurt Cobain that landed him on Anderson Cooper’s “Ridiculist,” and provoked widespread media derision for “lame jokes and petty one-liners” throughout the night, as Business Insider wrote.
Civil-minded or civil-war minded?
Since launching his campaign, Huntsman has made civility a pillar of his campaign — in theory, at least.
“For the sake of the younger generation, it concerns me that civility, humanity and respect are sometimes lost in our interactions as Americans … We will conduct this campaign on the high road. I don’t think you can run down someone’s reputation in order to run for the office of president,” he said.
But he hasn’t always abided by his own standard. He told CNN that Perry couldn’t “expect to be taken seriously” after his comments about Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke. He dismissed Rep. Michele BachmannMichele Marie BachmannBoehner says he voted for Trump, didn't push back on election claims because he's retired Boehner: Trump 'stepped all over their loyalty' by lying to followers Boehner finally calls it as he sees it MORE (R-Minn.) by telling New York Magazine that she made “for good copy and good photography.” And Fox News host Greta Van Susteren nailed him when he appeared on her show and ripped Perry and Romney, while saying he wasn’t “interested in drama.”
Van Susteren countered: “You come across as the nice-guy candidate, but I just heard you do two jabs … it’s not quite as nice and friendly as you suggest.”
He’s cast a wide net — one so wide that it doesn’t appear narrow enough to catch anyone. On one hand, he endorsed Budget Committee Chairman Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanHow Kevin McCarthy sold his soul to Donald Trump On The Trail: Retirements offer window into House Democratic mood Stopping the next insurrection MORE’s (R-Wis.) entitlement reform more fully than most of the other candidates, but he also openly embraced Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerDemocrats eager to fill power vacuum after Pelosi exit Stopping the next insurrection Biden, lawmakers mourn Harry Reid MORE’s (R-Ohio) moderate, compromise proposal on the debt ceiling.
He unveiled a jobs plan that the conservative Wall Street Journal’s editorial board hailed, but Huntsman has admitted discomfort over labels like “conservative” and has warned about politics “at the extreme ends,” which has kept him from the momentum such endorsements might provide.
And finally, he entered the race as a presumed leader in foreign policy — one who could, theoretically, articulate the most severely hawkish critique against the president. The only problem is that he’s been even more dovish than Obama on issues like Afghanistan. In his foreign policy address on Monday, Huntsman called for a reduction of U.S. troops there.
When his campaign launched, his operation made it clear that it considered South Carolina vital as a “tiebreaker” state and made impressive outreach to evangelicals and social conservatives there.
But, once again, his comments on evolution were mystifying in that context. He didn’t just say he believed in evolution; he sneered at those who didn’t.
The key voting bloc was already suspicious, thanks to his support for civil unions, but his failure to make any rhetorical outreach — not to mention sitting for glowing profiles like Vanity Fair’s, called “Jon Huntsman alienates base” — seemed designed to impress those on the cocktail circuit, not the church potluck line.
We might never know how good a candidate Huntsman could have been, possibly because we still haven’t found out who he is.
Heinze, the founder of GOP12.com, is a member of staff at The Hill.