Conservative Media Is the Biggest Culprit in Huntsman's Weak Showing

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Yes, he ran a flawed campaign. But the pathologies of Fox and talk radio were factors in his pathetic failure to catch on.

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On Monday, when Jon Huntsman withdrew from the Republican primary contest, one of the biggest questions about his candidacy was discussed anew: given his solidly conservative policy views, strong conservative record as two-term governor of Utah, and expertise on America's relationship with China, why did he fail to gain traction among voters, or even surpass the support given to clearly inferior candidates like Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain or Rick Perry? For goodness sakes, in one South Carolina poll Huntsman was bested by Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert!

It's useful to consider the conflicting takes of Andrew Sullivan and Daniel Larison, for their difference of opinion reflects the larger disagreement that divides observers of the GOP primary. And although there is truth to both of their arguments, I think neither gets it quite right. Writes Sullivan, "What you see in the rejection of Huntsman is the Republican body rejecting a sanity transplant. Based on unreason and hatred of the other half of America. It's irrational and degenerate." It's a summation that Larison calls possible but most likely insufficient:

That could be true, but this is hard to disentangle from what Andrew calls Huntsman's "tone-deaf" campaign. If Huntsman kept obscuring and hiding his relative sanity in his debate performances and interviews, it is hardly the fault of the electorate that they failed to appreciate it. Huntsman approached the race from the beginning as someone at once above it all and dismissive of the party he wanted to lead. He deliberately imitated McCain's strategy of cultivating the media and wooing non-Republicans and non-conservatives, and just like McCain he came to be viewed with dislike and distrust. Based on what the campaign was trying to achieve, they were successful. They turned one of the most conservative candidates in the race into a McCain-like figure of conservative scorn and mockery, and they did it on purpose.

There are many, many things wrong with the modern GOP, but Republicans' refusal to embrace a candidate who defined himself by his antipathy to them is a fairly natural and predictable response.

There are, I think, a few problems with Larison's explanation, though as usual there are valuable insights. As he's written on previous occasions, Huntsman "hid his sanity" on foreign policy during various debates, but this hardly explains why Republican primary voters spurned him, given that the vast majority are supporting candidates Larison and I regard as having said equally insane things, if not taking positions far more extreme than Huntsman.

It is additionally true that Huntsman borrowed some strategies (and a strategist) from McCain campaigns past. McCain won in 2008, however, and Huntsman as generated nowhere near as much support as even McCain's failed 2000 run. Admittedly, the mood of the electorate has changed, but the gulf in support is so great, even in a state like New Hampshire where McCain is still popular, that citing similarities with the McCain campaigns is insufficient to explain the fullness of Huntsman's failure.

To focus on one sentence Larison wrote: "If Huntsman kept obscuring and hiding his relative sanity in his debate performances and interviews, it is hardly the fault of the electorate that they failed to appreciate it." Quite right. Contra Sullivan, the blame shouldn't necessarily be taken as an indicator of the electorate's sanity. In addition to Huntsman's shortcomings, however, his failure is owed to the conservative media, whose failure in Election 2012 has been epic.

Despite Jon Huntsman's lackluster campaign, The American Conservative managed to inform its readers about the actual record and policy stances of the candidate. But that magazine, which operates outside the conservative movement, was a notable exception on the right, both in its coverage of Huntsman and for its early recognition and forthright acknowledgment that a succession of other GOP frontrunners were in fact deeply problematic champions who couldn't win.

Meanwhile, the Republican primary voters who rely on Fox News and talk radio to inform them got little help from their chosen information sources forming an accurate impression of the GOP candidates. They overestimated Michele Bachmann, who became a darling of the conservative movement by signalling her ideological bonifides during Fox News appearances; they overestimated Herman Cain, himself a talk-radio host, based on the cultural cues he sent; they overestimated Rick Perry after he was uncritically praised in movement media; and they vastly overestimated Newt Gingrich's conservatism because of his rhetoric.

Support for all these people skyrocketed when voters knew only what they'd been told by the ideologues they trust. And little wonder that, once these candidates were subject to scrutiny by the mainstream media, debate moderators, and rivals, the impression of Republican primary voters changed drastically. Of course, voter impressions naturally change to some degree over the course of a campaign, but I argue there has never been a primary in modern times wherein ideological media misinformed the Republican rank-and-file to so extreme a degree.

(Interestingly, RedState's Erick Erickson totally dismissed Huntsman's candidacy early on, then later acknowledged that he'd been insufficiently appreciate of his conservatism early in the campaign.)

As much as I agree with Larison that Huntsman miscalculated repeatedly in his campaign, I cannot separate the strategy he pursued from the media environment on the right, for if cable news and talk radio lavish attention on fiery Palins and Bachmanns, if Republican voters respond to the red meat speeches of Perry, if Cain explicitly and proudly touting his own ignorance wasn't enough to end the fawning treatment he got from Greta Van Susteren, if Rush Limbaugh was going to praise Newt Gingrich despite his myriad transgressions against conservative orthodoxy because he knew how to zing liberals, isn't it in many ways understandable for Huntsman to say to himself, "Neither my personality nor my temperament nor my time in the Obama Administration enables me to outdo these people at their own game, so I'm going to model my run on the last guy who had success despite not winning the talk-radio primary"?

Put another way, Huntsman knew that even if he hadn't sent out that tweet about global warming and evolution, he wasn't likely to get any love from Limbaugh or Fox or even half of the folks writing on The Corner, because there is little evidence that those people reward a genuinely conservative record or foreign-policy experience. He perhaps drew the wrong conclusions from this reality about what sort of campaign he should run, but that campaign was nevertheless shaped in large part by pathologies of the right-wing media that persist today.

It's possible that Mitch Daniels or Jeb Bush or Haley Barbour or Bobby Jindal or Chris Christie factored this same media reality into their decision not to run, recognizing that it didn't play to their strengths either. It is probable that this media reality also contributed to Tim Pawlenty's failure to gain traction. His campaign was flawed too, but what currently gets praised and rewarded in right-wing media doesn't square advantageously with his personality either. Perhaps these candidates who ran flawed campaigns did so partly because their biggest strengths -- executive experience and statehouse tenures more substantively conservative than Mitt Romney -- are rewarded much less by the conservative movement than asserting that Barack Obama is a Kenyan anti-colonialist and that mosques shouldn't be permitted in New York City until Christians are free to build churches anywhere in Saudi Arabia.

These are important factors to emphasize in explaining Huntsman's failure to catch on even a little, because remedying them is a precondition for getting better GOP candidates in the future. It is meanwhile unlikely that anyone will soon be so foolish as to run another campaign like Huntsman 2012.


Image credit: Reuters
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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