And Then There Were Five…
Ranking up there with Mitt Romney winning New Hampshire and bears shunning public lavatories in terms of pure shock, Jon Huntsman has withdrawn his candidacy for the Republican nomination. His supporters in South Carolina will hold a meeting in a phone box later to decide how to proceed.
Jokes aside, if Huntsman’s announcement comes as a surprise to anyone it will be only because they thought he had pulled out already after failing to win the second spot place he desperately needed in New Hampshire. But he vowed to fight on, telling his supporters ‘Ladies and gentlemen, I think we’re in the hunt’. Under a week later, the ‘hunt’ is over.
The media will portray the latest polls as the ‘final straw’ that forced Huntsman to at last end his faltering campaign. Huntsman has been shown to be trailing not only the rest of the pack in South Carolina, but also satirist Steven Colbert (who after ‘talking it over with [his] money’ has decided to launch a candidacy – expect a post on that soon). This, so the narrative goes, was the final humiliation and unavoidable evidence that he could not win the nomination. This is what we’re told led to the euthanasia of his campaign.
I disagree with this analysis. In fact, I don’t think he was ever running for the nomination at all. Or, at least, not this year. I am of the opinion that while Romney, Paul, Santorum, Gingrich and Perry fought it out for the 2012 nomination; Huntsman has been running his 2016 campaign the whole time.
If this seems a strange thing to suggest, it is no stranger than the many odd decisions Huntsman made throughout his campaign. Such as his decision not to campaign in Iowa, such as his intense focus on New Hampshire, such as speaking Mandarin and emphasising his more moderate views in front of a roomful of Republican voters. But all of these things make sense when taken as being part of his bid for the 2016 nomination (well, apart from the Mandarin. If Republican voters can’t handle Romney speaking French, they’ll never be won over by Chinese).
Over the course of his campaign, Huntsman made 170 appearances in New Hampshire. In terms of the 2012 election, this netted him only third place and a humiliation in Iowa, which he neglected entirely. Had he spent less time in New Hampshire and contested Iowa, he would have certainly split the moderate vote to some extent, condemning Romney to second. This would have weakened Romney’s frontrunner status, opening up the field and resulting in more votes for Huntsman and a viable candidacy. He did not do this though, and his campaign ended a damp squib.
However, taking Huntsman’s strategy as part of a 2016 bid, this prioritising of New Hampshire makes sense. Romney and Ron Paul (first and second in the primary) certainly made good use of the grassroots support that they had built up campaigning there in 2008. Likewise, John McCain, who won the 2008 primary, relied on his base there from the 2000 election when he won the state over George W. Bush. Huntsman’s 170 appearances as part of this supposed ‘campaign’ surely make him an early frontrunner for 2016, at least in the state if not the country.
But if he has been aiming for 2016 all along, why has he been doing this? Why not run now? With the economy weak, Obama’s approval rating low and the Republican candidates laughable, it appears to be the perfect time. However, Huntsman could not win in 2012, and he knows this. His platform is too easily dismissed as Romney-lite, he himself is too low profile to mount a credible challenge, and he’s too closely linked with Obama’s administration to fight an effective campaign against it. But four years on, Obama will be out of the White House, Romney will certainly not attempt a third Presidential bid and Huntsman will be the candidate with the name-recognition and base in New Hampshire to build a candidacy around. Not to mention a four-year head start and a billionaire father.
Though every candidate that drops out of the race does it saying that they are ‘suspending’ their campaign (due to a funding loophole that allows them to keep accepting money if they use that terminology), in Jon Huntsman’s case, the word is apt. His announcement yesterday marked only the end of part one of his campaign. If he uses the next four years wisely, part two in 2016 could be very successful indeed.