Matt Bai hits the campaign trail with Jon Huntsman, and proclaims that he's being underrated as a presidential contender.
Why? Because, he says, contrary to what liberals think, most Republicans aren't nuts, and so they'll probably look for a not-crazy candidate. And: because there's nothing doing on the Democratic side, lots of independents will be voting in GOP open primaries, at least in the states that have open primaries.
Sorry, I'm not buying it.
Jonathan Chait beat me to the punch on the first part of it, and he covers it well. I'd say it slightly differently...yes, most Republicans aren't nuts (in Bai's words: "stereotypical birther types with pictures of Sarah Palin on their refrigerators and nothing but Bibles on their bookshelves"). They are, however, conservatives. All else equal, most Republicans, especially those who vote in primaries and attend caucuses, are likely to prefer a more conservative to a less conservative candidate. They might not go for a Michele Bachmann or a Herman Cain because of concerns about November, or even because they're not sure those candidates are really up to the presidency. But Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, and (if he's in) Rick Perry should all be at acceptable on both counts. So Huntsman's appeal is going to be limited to actual moderates, which just isn't where the party is. The truth is that the one who is being condescending here is Bai, who apparently doesn't get that not all strong conservatives are also off their rockers.
As far as open primaries...this is one of those incredibly sophisticated hidden variables that insiders can feel all insidery for knowing about, but don't really amount to much. Bai asks what would have happened had independents in New Hampshire voted for Bill Bradley instead of John McCain in 2000. You know what? Check what happened to McCain! In very close contests, this sort of thing can make the difference, but presidential nominations are rarely close contests.
Here's what's going to happen. Everyone's attention is going to be on Iowa. Someone is going to win in Iowa; someone is going to come in second; someone is going to finish third. Odds are that those are the candidates who receive most of the publicity in the week between Iowa and New Hampshire, and candidates who do poorly in Iowa or skip it altogether will get mostly ignored -- and therefore wind up with disappointing results.
The truth is that people don't win presidential nominations by waiting for the perfect state for the demographics that give them the best chance and then running and winning there. That's just not how the game is played.
Chait believes that Huntsman is running for 2016, and Ezra Klein suspects he's running for the VP slot. Perhaps. Maybe he's just willing to take a longshot chance (it's implausible that he'll win, but not impossible). Or maybe he's just suffering from the delusions that previously affected such no-chance moderate GOP candidates as Pete Wilson, Arlen Specter, Rudy Giuliani. He wouldn't be the first.