THE BLOG
11/07/2011 09:22 am ET | Updated Jan 07, 2012

The Huntsman Conundrum

On paper, Jon Huntsman seems like one of the most viable candidates to win the Republican nomination for president. His experience is stellar: he worked in the administration of four presidents, he served as Governor of Utah, and he is the former CEO of the Huntsman Corporation. During his governorship of Utah, he boasted the highest job creation rate of any state, a tax reform that helped Utah ease its debt burden, and incentives for alternative energy. His experience as Ambassador to China for President Obama also gives him as much foreign policy experience as any of his opponents. China's mind-boggling rise to a world diplomatic and economic superpower has created a 21st century that will be defined by bilateralism between the United States and China. Additionally, he is a moderate and is bipartisan. He supports civil unions, wants in-state tuition for illegal aliens, and wants a less interventionist foreign policy. With this resumé, Huntsman would seem like a very good choice for president. So then why is he being slaughtered in the polls by an inexperienced candidate, Herman Cain?

In U.S. presidential elections, popularity is not only derived from intelligent policy or experience, but also from rhetoric and campaigning. In 2008, Barack Obama captured the presidency with an aspirational message. Rather than focusing on complex issues or depressing realities, Obama patriotically articulated a hyper-optimistic future and a vague concept of change. While many have criticized him for failing to met these highly unrealistic goals, Obama charted a course to break through ideological divides and unite the country under common-sense policies. By preaching an agenda that would fix nearly all of America's problems, Obama pleased and created a connection with voters across America. Preaching ideal policies creates an instant sense of admiration from the average American who wants to be told all problems are easily solvable by a new government. Americans enjoy being inspired by a sense of renewed hope in their country. This is a strategy used not only by Obama in 2008 but currently by many of the Republicans, including Cain and Texas Governor Rick Perry.

Unlike some of his counterparts, Huntsman has not run an effective campaign. As the campaign is playing out, it seems fiery rhetoric, simplification, and publicity are trumping experience and intelligence. To understand this, one has to look at Huntsman's foil, Herman Cain. With little political experience and with simple policies, Cain has generated wide appeal. He currently leads the polls, and the reasons highlight the pitfalls of Huntsman. To begin, Cain is easy to understand. In debates, he selects a few issues and hammers them in. For example, Cain has focused on his "999 plan," which establishes 9 percent taxes on income, corporate, and sales taxes. This plan, though oversimplified, translates well with voters who do not need be economists to understand it. Huntsman's tax reform is complex, involving tax holidays, eliminating the Alternative Minimum Tax and altering capital gains and dividends. To many average voters, Huntsman's style is annoying and boring, translating to a lack of interest. Huntsman's extensive foreign policy has proven to be a detriment as well. When asked about China, Rick Perry, whose early lead has disappeared, talked about how to win the jobs back from the Chinese, using a patriotic tone that rang sweetly with voters. Huntsman, the most knowledgeable on the topic, ranted on the intricacies of our relations, putting many Americans to sleep. If Huntsman wants to win, he needs to simplify his policy explanations, making them more digestible and appealing to the average Republican.

Huntsman is also a casualty of his own moderate positions. Although that may be an advantage in a general election, it makes you a liberal in Republican primaries and caucuses. With the Republicans moving in a more conservative direction, Huntsman has been alienating the Republican base. For instance, military intervention arouses patriotism in every Republican, making it an easy issue to support. Huntsman has advocated a step back from an aggressive military policy, which has labeled him as a non-supporter of the military, a dangerous position for Republican support. This also comes in to play with healthcare. The healthcare Huntsman proposed in Utah is similar to Obamacare and Romneycare, but unlike Romney, Huntsman has not insulted and disassociated himself enough from Obamacare. For someone who believes in moderate social policies, Huntsman has been unable to convince enough Republicans that he is truly a Republican.

Huntsman's moderate, complex stances have landed him on the bottom of the polls. His fundraising is pitiful, forcing him to spend half a million dollars of his own money to continue his campaign. His public profile is fading as a result of lagging poll numbers and his decision to boycott the recent presidential debate held in Nevada. To put it lightly, Huntsman is in a rut, yet if he keeps spinning his wheels using the same techniques, he is not getting out of it. Huntsman needs to simplify his policies and bolster his Republican image to have a real shot. Although he must distance himself from the Obama administration, he might try to mimic Obama when it comes to campaign strategy.