In choosing the location where he would announce his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination, Jon Huntsman Jr. was no doubt trying to conjure the ghosts of successful campaigns past. Liberty State Park in New Jersey, a scenic area in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, was also where President Ronald Reagan launched what would prove to be his victorious presidential bid in 1980. In the contemporary climate of Republican politics, where the search for a new conservative champion in the vein of Reagan has been underway seemingly since President Obama’s inauguration, Liberty State Park must have seemed to be the most perfect way of hinting that said champion had arrived. Unfortunately for Mr. Huntsman, the announcement and the campaign that followed couldn’t have been further removed from a campaign that saw Reagan unseat the incumbent Jimmy Carter in a landslide.
Huntsman appeared, on paper, to be one of the best choices in the Republican field. He had business credentials, having worked for his father’s company; he was already a successful politician, a two-time governor of Utah with a successful fiscal and economic record; and he had experience abroad, having served as an ambassador under two presidents. Given the impressive resume of the candidate, it is hard to imagine how the campaign could go wrong.
Announcement and Early Turmoil
While the setting in which Jon Huntsman decided to announce his running for the presidential nomination may have smacked of Reagan in a bid to appeal to conservative voters, Huntsman’s tone was decidedly more moderate than what voters would become accustomed to hearing from the field of candidates as the primaries wore on. Whereas several prominent Republican politicians had taken some very public and partisan potshots at President Obama over the course of his term in office, Huntsman made it apparent that civility would be the watchword of his campaign. In reference to his service on President Obama’s staff, Huntsman sad, “He and I both have a difference of opinion on how to help the country we love. But the questions each of us wants the voters to answer is who will be the better President; not who’s the better American.” Considering the rhetoric, especially the questioning of Obama’s patriotism, common in some Republican circles since 2008, to have a candidate for the Republican nomination freely admit that the President loves America as much as he does was almost a refreshing change of pace.
If Huntsman’s tone during his announcement speech was merely a departure from his contemporaries attempts to crown themselves heirs to the Reagan throne, the bungling way in which the announcement ceremony was conducted was an indicator that Huntsman had no hope, if ever the desire, of taking up the mantel himself. The abject failure of that event could not have been further from the success of the 1980 campaign of which it was meant to be reminiscent. The speech delivered was thought, by some, to be lackluster. The stage placement, no doubt chosen solely due to the view of the Statue of Liberty in the background, was undermined by a camera angle that failed to capture it prominence. At the beginning of the event, the press were issued passes on which the candidates name was misspelled, and at the end of the day they were taken not to Mr. Huntsman’s aircraft, but mistakenly to a Saudi plane instead. These missteps must have seemed to be a bad omen for the Huntsman campaign. It is possible however, that, at the time, these hiccups were viewed simply as a rocky start down a long campaign trail. But it would soon become apparent that these bumps were just the beginning.
Huntsman faced a handful of hurdles early on in his campaign. One immediate problem was his lack of national recognition. One month after announcing his intention to run for the party’s nomination, Huntsman was still languishing in the single digits of national polls. This was an issue compounded by the his difficulty in wooing conservative voters. As a governor he supported a cap-and-trade initiative and same-sex marriage, and he later went on to serve as ambassador under a Democratic president. Credentials such as these were a tough sell on conservative voters forged in the fires of partisan politics over the last several years. Additionally, Huntsman was criticized several times for running such a low-profile campaign. These deficiencies, coupled with the tone of civility set by Huntsman, made it apparent that there would be a long, hard slog ahead.
By early August, things were not looking good. It was then that David Fischer, a close friend of Huntsman’s who had also worked for Jon Huntsman Sr., revealed in an interview that the Huntsman campaign was suffering from toxic leadership that was causing it to hemorrhage personnel. In speaking with the newspaper POLITICO, Fischer, who worked on the Huntsman campaign as an advisor and operations manager, pointed the finger squarely at one man, chief strategist John Weaver. Weaver, who gained notoriety as an advisor and chief strategist to John McCain and for carrying on a feud with Karl Rove, was derided by Fischer and others on the campaign for his mood swings, micromanaging and his use of intimidation as a managing technique. POLITICO also reported that clashes with Weaver lead to at least four other high level Huntsman employees to quit the campaign.
But the exodus of valuable staffers was not the only challenged faced by the campaign early on. It was poor planning and coordination that lead to the campaign’s announcement fiasco, for which Weaver reportedly leveled a verbal tirade at staffers and volunteers who were not even involved in the event. The campaign was so sparse and poorly organized that Huntsman did not have a policy director or white papers, used by a candidate to stay up to date with the issues. Finally, Jon Huntsman Sr. and Mary Kay, the candidate’s wife, began asking questions of the campaign staff, concerned that Huntsman was not getting the necessary media exposure for the campaign to be successful. There was also some concern about the state of the campaign’s fundraising affairs. According to campaign sources, Huntsman had raised about $4 million by July. Of that amount, less than half had come from Huntsman himself and major campaign contributors were antsy for the candidate to put more of his own skin in the game. By August, when the rest of the trouble came to light, it must have seemed like the beginning of the end to Jon Huntsman. If the stories about Weaver were true, then it was not hard to believe that the rest of the problems that the campaign was experiencing was symptomatic of an out of control chief strategist and the toxic working environment that he created. But the Huntsman camp must have seen it differently, as Weaver remained on board.
As the rest of 2011 progressed, Huntsman began to somewhat shed his image of civility. While appearing on the ABC News program This Week, he took shots at rivals Michelle Bachman and Rick Perry, both of whom were popular with the Tea Party crowd. Huntsman called Bachman’s plans to bring down gas prices as “completely unrealistic,” and made reference to Perry’s comments about Texas’ secession after Perry called Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke’s quantitative easing program “treasonous.” He also lambasted Perry for the Texas governor’s criticisms of global warming science, claiming that such blatant disregard for the findings of the scientific community would be damning for the party’s chances of victory.
Huntsman continued to ride this more aggressive attitude in the months that followed, even though he remained a perpetual outsider. One bright moment came at a debate at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California in September. Debate participants were positioned on the stage according to their rankings in the most recent polls. As such, Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney was center stage next to Rick Perry. Huntsman, on the other hand, found himself occupying the far end of the debate platform. Patient and calculating, Huntsman waited until called upon by the debate moderator to comment on threats made by Mitt Romney concerning starting a trade war with China. After giving his reply, Huntsman took an opportunity to stick it to the opposition. He turned to the two frontrunners and said, “I hate to stick it to the great Lone Star governor, but as governor of Utah, we were the number one job creator in this country during my years of service… And to my good friend Mitt, forty-seven just ain’t gonna cut it my friend, not when you can be first.”
Iowa, New Hampshire and Beyond
By December, most of the GOP hopefuls were gearing up for the Iowa Caucasus, set to take place in January. Jon Huntsman, on the other hand, decided to skip over Iowa in favor of concentrating on the New Hampshire Primaries. Huntsman was quoted as saying, “They pick corn in Iowa and pick presidents here in New Hampshire.” This strategy must have seemed like a good move considering Huntsman’s moderate stance and Iowans’ penchant for social conservatism.
At the time that Huntsman made these remarks, his presence in New Hampshire was not particularly strong. At least one poll from that time placed Huntsman fourth in the state with 9 percent, well below Mitt Romney’s leading 44 percent. This is in spite of the fact that, in the six months leading up the New Hampshire Primaries, Jon Huntsman conducted 175 events in the Granite State. However, his focus on the state, coupled with strong debate performance, seemed to boost his support when New Hampshire voters went to the polls.
Two days before the Primaries, Huntsman and the other candidates took part in a debate in Concord, New Hampshire. This debate would prove to be one of Huntsman’s best performances of his campaign. In the opening minutes of the debate, he took the opportunity to address criticism that he received from Mitt Romney in the previous evenings debate concerning Huntsman’s service as ambassador to China under President Obama. He retaliated by saying, “Like my two sons are doing in the United States Navy. They’re not asking what political affiliation the president is. I want to be very clear with the people here in New Hampshire and this country: I will always put my country first.” It was a great a debate moment as anyone, perhaps even Jon Huntsman himself, could have hoped. And it was just the beginning of what would be a debate dominated by the Governor of Utah.
After the polls closed in frigid New Hampshire and the last votes had been tallied, Jon Huntsman stood in third place behind Mitt Romney and Ron Paul. It must have been disappointing, given the time and energy spent in the state by the campaign. But if so, Huntsman didn’t let it show. Upon hearing the results of the Primary, Huntsman announced to his faithful, “I say third place is a ticket to ride, ladies and gentlemen! Hello South Carolina!” But the enthusiasm in that announcement only served to belie the reality of the situation heading into South Carolina.
Huntsman was already at a disadvantage, due to being a moderate candidate, headed into the traditionally conservative Palmetto State. One poll even had him losing out to comedian Stephen Colbert, a South Carolina native who was not even running. These problems were not helped, and were most likely exacerbated, by the fact that the Huntsman campaign spent no money on television advertising in the state. His opponents, on the other hand, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars a piece ensuring that their names hit the airwaves.
On January 16th, Jon Huntsman withdrew from the race for the Republican nomination. In addressing his supporters he stayed true to his calls for civility, citing the race’s deterioration into wave after wave of negativity and the negative dialogue that had become a staple of the campaign season. Huntsman decided to throw his support behind Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, believing him to be the best chance that Republicans’ have of unseating Barack Obama. Less than one month later, Huntsman was appointed director of the Board of Directors at Huntsman Corporation.
Given the short lived and roundly unsuccessful nature of Jon huntsman’s campaign, it is nearly impossible to pick out any positive aspects. Announcing his candidacy at Liberty Park, the same place Reagan announced his successful 1980 run, was a good strategy. This choice of venue allowed Huntsman, who certainly held more moderate views that his competitors, to give the appearance of a more staunch conservative figure. This well-played stunt was damaged, however, by the poor planning and gaffes that plagued the event. Gaffes that may well be traced to Huntsman’s chief campaign strategist, John Weaver.
It should have been apparent in the wake of the announcement debacle that something was not right. If not immediately, than certainly after Weaver verbally abused members of the South Carolina and Florida advance teams, campaign members who had nothing to do with the event in New Jersey, in the wake of the event. Given Weaver’s purported attitude and the issued that it caused with other members on the staff, it is a wonder that he was allowed to retain his position throughout the campaign. One must also wonder if the further troubles experienced by the campaign (lack of policy leadership, fundraising coordination, TV advertising heading into South Carolina, etc.) did not stem from the inability of John Weaver to work with those around him. The body rotting from the head, as it were.
Campaign financing in particular was an area in which Huntsman was severely lacking. All told, the Huntsman campaign raised just over $3.3 million in individual campaign contributions and Huntsman himself kicked in a little over $2.5 million of his own money. However these sums are nothing compared to the tens of millions of dollars a piece that were raised by the top Republican candidates. While it is true that money cannot buy an election, it certainly makes a difference in the primary season by helping to ensure a good presence in the early contest, thus helping candidates become known and continue their fundraising success throughout.
Failure to secure a good showing in the early contests also had a negative impact on the Huntsman campaign. In fact, his decision to skip the Iowa Caucasus may have been the deciding factor in his failure. While the conservative Hawkeye State may not have been the most hospitable battleground for the Utah governor’s campaign, it had the possibility of giving him extra push, in both supporters and media coverage, going into New Hampshire. While Huntsman did place in the top three in New Hampshire, it was decidedly not a strong finish as a Gallup national poll had Huntsman at the bottom of the field with 3 percent, his highest rating of the season. It is hard to imagine that some time could not have been better spent campaigning in, instead of throwing zingers at, Iowa. If nothing else, it would have been an opportunity for him to flex his conservative muscle and increase his national media presence.
Looking the evidence, it begs the question as to whether Jon huntsman was even running a campaign. He demonstrated wanton disregard for the inner turmoil caused by his chief campaign strategist. Fundraising efforts put forth by his campaign were minimal in comparison with his opponents, whether symptomatic of the drama within his campaign or intentional appears to be debatable. We do know, however, that his own refusal to apply more of his own funds to the campaign was a point of contention amongst his donors. Finally, we are presented with a dogged refusal to campaign and compete in one important primary state, as well as an expenditure of $0 on air time before heading into another one. If Jon huntsman’s heart was not in this campaign, where was it? Perhaps we’ll find out in 2016, if he decides to make another go at it. If not, he will always be remember for running this campaign that wasn’t.
 Nelson W. Polsby, Aaron Wildavsky and David A. Hopkins, Presidential Elections, 12th ed. (US: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers Inc., 2008), 111.
 Nelson W. Polsby, Aaron Wildavsky and David A. Hopkins, Presidential Elections, 12th ed. (US: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers Inc., 2008), 111.