Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Further Case Against Running -- and Losing

(Updated below)

My item on Jon Huntsman yesterday got a fair amount of pushback, not only in comments but also from Salon's Steve Kornacki, who I often agree with. To recap, I was arguing against the idea that it's a smart strategy to run in 2012 as a way of building up for a more realistic shot at the 2016 presidential race.

Kornacki argues that "running a credible first-time national effort can do wonders for a politician's national standing," and that unlikely candidates have been known to turn in those solid first-time efforts. His examples for the first point are Lamar Alexander (or, as he correctly writes, Lamar!) in 1996, Pat Buchanan in 1992, Steve Forbes in 1996, Pat Robertson in 1988, Ronald Reagan in 1976, and Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney in 2008.

Of these, I think Reagan doesn't fit, since (as Kornacki acknowledges) his first run was in 1968; more to the point, he was a major force in the party at that point, and what happened to him, in my view, tells us little about the Huntsman case. Buchanan, Robertson, and in my view Forbes also tell us little about whether running and losing would help Huntsman as a future candidate; none of those three ever really had a serious chance of being nominated by a major party, and in fact their candidacies were not, really for the nomination. I certainly agree that if Huntsman's goal is publicity or a Fox News talk show, then entering the nomination contest might help, but that has nothing to do with real presidential politics, so I'm putting it aside.

That leaves Lamar!, Huck, and Mitt. Alexander, it's true, did a whole lot better than many expected in 1996 -- but it's very hard to argue that it helped him in 2000 in any way. Kornacki talks about George W. Bush's campaign as if it came out of nowhere; he says that "under different circumstances, he could easily have been a much bigger player in the 2000 race." I disagree. Bush seemed so strong because the other candidates were weak; he defeated them. The whole point is that running a good race in 1996 didn't make Alexander a strong candidate against Bush.

As for Huck and Mitt, well, it seems a bit too early to tell. Both seem poised to make serious runs. On the other hand, I'm not sure that Romney seems any stronger now than he did in January 2007 -- does he? Huckabee, to be sure, seems a bit stronger now than he seemed to most people in 2007, but perhaps that's because he was just underrated then. In other words, I'm not really convinced -- yet -- that either of them actually has improved by running last time. The main advantage that running gave them is that no one else emerged as a strong contender. That's not nothing, but it's pretty limited.

That leaves the argument that Huntsman could, like Lamar! and some others, catch fire unexpectedly, I just don't see it. Alexander seemed boring in 1995, with no particular reason for anyone to think he'd be the one to break out of the pack, but he didn't appear to have any other significant drawbacks, and who had concentrated from early on the cycle on the early states. That's not true for Huntsman, who is almost certainly unacceptable to GOP groups that care about marriage (and who hold a veto on the nomination), and who also worked for the Obama Administration and, at best, is off to a very slow start. In other words, the problem with a Huntsman candidacy isn't that he's obscure (although he'd have to overcome that as well), but all the other baggage he brings to the race. Yes, the GOP field appears weak so far (although to some extent that's a function of the point in the cycle we're at; lots of candidates who wound up very strong in the past looked weak this far out). I can imagine an orthodox conservative candidate jumping in at this late date and making some noise. Huntsman just isn't that candidate right now.

Update: Kornacki responds. Given that I've done I think four Huntsman items now, which is like three too many, I think I'll just let him have the last word.


  1. I don't buy Lamar Alexander in this category at all. He found a modest level of success in the 1996 primaries but didn't even make it to the year 2000 much less the primaries once Iowa kicked things off in late January of that year. Did he raise his profile? I don't know how that is even defined. Voters were perhaps more aware of him in 2000 due to his 1996 run, but I don't know that Republican primary voters were any more or less inclined to support him the second time around. The Republican establishment certainly wasn't. Bush had cornered that market.

    Romney has nowhere to go but down in 2012. He had many more paths to victory in 2008. His competitiveness in Iowa, Wyoming, New Hampshire, Nevada and Michigan coupled with the monetary advantage he had over Huckabee and McCain had him potentially well-positioned heading into Florida and Super Tuesday. His only weak point was South Carolina. That's not true for 2012. Romney almost has to win New Hampshire and Nevada or he falls into the John Edwards/2008 trap (can't win where he won the last time). And he isn't viewed as nearly as competitive in Iowa.

    It is still too early, but Huckabee seems like the best analogy (and it isn't even certain that he'll run in 2012). Huckabee claimed the mantle as the nominal social conservative candidate when Fred Thompson's candidacy flatlined and when he beat back Sam Brownback in the Ames Straw Poll. His win in Iowa opened the door to subsequent electoral victories, but the lack of institutional support within the party establishment hurt him when it came time to assemble a rapidfire network capable of raising the amount of money necessary to compete against the rising McCain tide (if you can call it that. Perhaps that's a bit strong.).

    Can Huntsman repeat that Huckabee path? That's not likely. The Huntsman path to relevance (not even the nomination) is predicated on the notion that Mitt Romney's campaign fails and that Huntsman can then pick up some insider support and perhaps the fiscal conservative wing of the party. Even if that were to occur, it would likely take some primary/caucus victories to elevate him for a 2016 run.

    Let's assume a Romney campaign implosion and a Huntsman emergence. Does that translate into victories? I don't know. The calendar is unsettled, but Huntsman would be in a tough position in Iowa and South Carolina, wouldn't have the regional tie in New Hampshire and would have perhaps some Mormon support in the Nevada caucuses (though the caucus process in Nevada was quiet fluid in 2008 and ended strangely). Even on the Huckabee path and assuming a Romney collapse, Huntsman still doesn't have a clear path to 2016 relevance institutionally or strategically.

    Now, as an aside, I think we should mention that the Republicans have a different set of rules for 2012 in terms of delegate allocation. With the requirement that all states holding contests prior to April allocate delegates proportionally, the traditional calculus may be different in terms of what success means (and more importantly what that success portends for the future). It still won't help Huntsman.

  2. Where does the "Lamar!" thing come from?


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