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.

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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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