Former Presidential Candidate Jon Huntsman, a moderate Republican governor from Utah, was heavily criticized by the GOP establishment during his primary run in early 2012. Huntsman was labeled a liberal, called “too moderate” and lambasted for his work under the Obama Administration as the United States Ambassador to China. Receiving only two delegates during the primary season, Huntsman exited the race in mid-January last year after a disappointing third-place finish in the New Hampshire primary. It’s hard to understand why the Republican candidate that many considered the most electable and mainstream of the primary field received almost no support from the party until one considers his moderate positions on evolution, gay marriage and climate change. While Huntsman was being virtually shut-out by the GOP, other candidates who made outlandish claims were backed by the far-right. Because of the party’s intolerance towards moderate politics, Huntsman was forced to turn to a new, uncharted (for most Republicans anyway) medium: new media.
Huntsman briefly garnered the media’s attention in August of 2011, when he indirectly jabbed Rick Perry on Twitter, citing the fact that he believes in evolution and climate change after Perry was quoted as telling a young boy that Texas taught both creationism and evolution due to the “gaps in the theory of evolution.” The tweet was retweeted over 5,500 times and made national headlines as the “outsider” attempted to make a name for himself in a field full of social conservatives that appealed to social movements like the Tea Party. The tweet in question was created after Huntsman and two staffers sat down and tried to craft a way to attack Perry and that wing of the Republican Party for the radicalism that had (and has) taken over the GOP. However, it appears as though they had no idea how successful the humorous tweet would be or how popular it would become. However, the effect it had was polarizing: for young conservatives and moderates, many viewed Huntsman as the potential savior of the party–the face of young, but reasonable, conservative politics. On the other end of the spectrum, many social conservatives and evangelicals (who already viewed him as “different” due to his Mormon faith, a quality that would also hurt Romney), felt even more alienated by the Utah governor.
When asked about the tweet during a primary debate between all the Republican candidates, Huntsman seemingly backed off the attack, possibly fearing retribution for publicly endorsing climate change (which was only mentioned once in the GOP 2012 platform) and evolution, when many of the supporters of the party vehemently deny both “theories.” Unable to continue distinguishing himself from the candidates for fear of further drifting from the Republican base, Huntsman was put into a no-win situation–his tweet and moderate viewpoints putting him in the position of a Republican pariah. When he failed to deliver a victory in New Hampshire (where John McCain made the decisive play for the nomination in 2008), he withdrew.
Now a year removed from dropping out of the primary, Huntsman is again turning to the new media that originally brought attention to his lacking campaign. With whispers of a 2016 run surrounding his camp, Huntsman recently visited Buzzfeed headquarters to give two different interviews. Buzzfeed is a relatively new infotainment source; the website covers everything from lists about fictional television characters to interviews with popular politicians. Shared thousands of times on Facebook and Twitter daily, their articles and lists receive millions of page views every week. A reader is as likely to see gifs (a loop of muted video) or memes as they are an actual article about a pop culture or actual news. Thus, the fact that Jon Huntsman visited their headquarters to do two interviews with them is telling of his potential campaign strategy. Two interviews, one about climate change and one about the GOP, went live yesterday and provide a telling insight into where Huntsman may go in the coming years.
After losing the 2012 election decisively, the Republican Party can go one of two ways. Option A is a re-branding of sorts: moving towards the middle on social issues while reaching across the aisle to solve fiscal issues. This option would keep the party alive and competitive on the backs of men like Chris Christie (Governor of New Jersey) and Huntsman. Huntsman and Christie would be able to reach out to younger voters through new media like Twitter, Facebook, Buzzfeed, etc. and demonstrate that the Republican Party doesn’t have to live up to the “old” in GOP. Reaching to the middle (with climate change like Huntsman has done) while having the support of the base would signify a change from the current norm in Republican politics and make the 2016 election competitive.
Option A would seemingly focus on creating an online presence for the Republican Party, something that, as pointed out in Karpf’s The MoveOn Effect, is severely lacking compared to the liberal blogosphere. Huntsman would have to organically create a moderately Republican cyber-space that could rival the Democratic sphere online if he wanted to rely on new media as opposed to the traditional support structure of the GOP. Twitter, Buzzfeed, etc. could spur on this creation, but it would be quite a task, especially if it were only a matter of years before the 2016 campaign begins.
However, Option B seems to be the path the Republican Party is taking. Many in the Republican Party are fighting tooth-and-nail to make sure that no legislation is passed with regards to the debt ceiling in the coming months. It took 25th hour bargaining to save parts of the Bush tax cuts, and some in the party are denouncing their ranks that supported the deal. Simply put, the Republican Party seems to be turning in on itself. If this trend continues, look for someone even more right than Romney to be on the ballot in 2016–possibly Paul Ryan. They will lack the ability to appeal to the middle and will likely lose to the 2016 democratic candidate.
Huntsman’s move towards more new media and being quoted as saying that he thinks he “has one more run left in him” make me believe personally he’s gearing up for a 2016 run with hopes of moving the party back towards the center.