This is a follow up to yesterday’s post on the Republican presidential candidate field. Jeff Zeleny at the New York Times and Michael Crowley at Time both write about the “Huntsman test,” which boils down to two questions — can a candidate the Republican base likes win the general election? Can a viable general election candidate win a Republican nomination?
Yes, that’s the same question asked two ways. In talking about the “Huntsman test,” they’re pointing to potential candidate Jon Huntsman, who represents the sort of candidate who might do well with moderate voters, and asking if someone that moderate could possibly be nominated.
The first goal is to return the GOP back to pure conservative orthodoxy; this is the Tea Party mantra in a nutshell. The second is to defeat Barack Obama at all costs. I realize there are people who think that one naturally leads to the next. But there are more peopleâ€“including most of the Republican Party establishmentâ€“who think that nominating a Tea Party hero/heroine will replicate Delawareâ€™s Christine Oâ€™Donnell debacle on a national scale.
A Huntsman campaign might force Republican voters to decide between the two propositions. As Zeleny notes, his record is full of heresiesâ€“from gay rights to global warming to calling Barack Obama a â€œremarkable leader.â€ (You can also add conservative crankiness over his spending record as Utah governor to the list.) Jennifer Rubin thinks that Huntsman doesnâ€™t even â€œpass the laugh testâ€ with conservative voters, and that talk of his candidacy is a case of liberal-media wish fulfillment.
It’s hard to say whether Huntsman himself could ever catch on as a candidate, but the point is that he represents the type of candidate who could appeal to a broad enough spectrum of voters to actually win a national election. But it’s unlikely such a candidate could be nominated, and if he were nominated, it’s unlikely the baggers would work up enthusiasm for his candidacy. To a hard-core bagger, a moderate Republican is no different from a Democrat.
This is not to say that they won’t vote for the white guy over the black guy. But don’t expect them to show up at his rallies or donate money to his candidacy. And low-information voters often don’t bother to vote at all unless they are riled up about something.
Republicans have a shot a beating Barack Obama only if they have a candidate they can rally around and support with enthusiasm. Enthusiasm builds a bandwagon effect that can swing the mushy middle. If Republicans are conflicted about their guy, it doesn’t inspire much confidence in the mushies to dump the incumbent.
A lot depends on what the economy is doing next year and whether the issues surrounding the Ryan budget can be kept on the front burner. If the economy slows again, I think President Obama could be vulnerable to one of the “Fairfax Five” (Barbour, Daniels, Huntsman, Pawlenty and Romney). A close election could well come down to which side has the most enthusiasm.