by Eduardo Lopez-Reyes
Having lived briefly under Jon Huntsman’s tenure as Governor of Utah, and as someone who has a few things in common with the Governor – including his religious background, a life-shaping passion for rock music, and a conservative-but-libertarian-leaning, pragmatic approach to politics – I feel I was able to ponder what went wrong with the Governor’s presidential campaign from a fairly unique perspective; particularly as someone who served on the Jon Huntsman for President New Hampshire State Steering Committee.
The challenges I detected in New Hampshire included shifts through three different leadership styles in the campaign’s brief New Hampshire existence, an eventual single-state strategy, what I perceived as an apprehension to reach out to libertarian-leaning Republicans, and difficulty recognizing and properly capitalizing on new and (or) less politically seasoned supporters.
The first thing that struck me about the Huntsman campaign, however, was the worldliness of its campaign operatives: from the field directors all the way up to nationally recognized consultants, they were independents and Republicans who understood the world, were tolerant, and sophisticated. They were socially moderate, holding diverse views on specific social issues but always tolerant of those who disagreed with them. The consistency of views was more palpable on fiscal and foreign policy subjects – in a sense, the campaign’s philosophical center of gravity.
Governor Huntsman struck me as possessing a strong native intellect, a relaxed approach to life, and a progressive paradigm on social issues married to a refined understanding of fiscal and foreign policy matters. He struck me as ‘The Future of Our Party’ – a brand of Republicanism that is more cosmopolitan, respectful of individual freedoms, concerned with entrepreneurship in a modern economy and its correlation to better K-12 and higher education opportunities. Joining Governor Huntsman’s team, I sensed that in addition to joining a campaign to change our country, it was also a campaign for a new Republican Party: one that could also appeal to urban voters and overcome its more polarizing tendencies. More than anything, I admired the Governor’s ability to connect to average voters: it was great introducing the Governor and reminding people that in addition to being a great Governor, he had also played keyboards on stage with REO Speedwagon and Styx. When members of the audience are sporting ‘Yes’ tour t-shirts, this stuff carries stock.
Ed introduces Governor Huntsman
at a campaign event in New Hampshire
Despite these strengths, the campaign had a huge challenge: to go from nowhere to first place in the ‘First in the Nation Primary’ in a very short amount of time.
The first palpable difficulty was the campaign team’s intentional or unintentional buffer between the candidate and key constituents. While this is common in campaigns across the country, it can be a lethal error in any New Hampshire effort: even presidential candidates are expected to campaign for office as though they’re running for city council – or, as Governor Huntsman would say, New Hampshire voters expect to see “the old Adlai Stevenson shoe leather on the ground.”
In New Hampshire, candidates call potential supporters directly, meet with them, and allocate generous amounts of time to each; they go out to local diners and shake hands, they go through town hall meetings where voters grill them – sometimes repeatedly, and often with the same questions again and again (particularly if planted by opponents).
New Hampshire voters are not star-struck – and they expect a candidate to give concise but informative answers to all their questions. In New Hampshire, the odds are everyone knows someone who has received a call or two from more than one presidential candidate: these are not pre-recorded calls, but the real thing. It’s actually regrettable that this experience has been reduced to just New Hampshire, or a handful of states at most, depending on the election cycle.
This initial, guarded approach to the Governor’s campaign was ill-suited for New Hampshire. Although mistakes like this were short-lived, they stirred concern among state steering committee members who felt Governor Huntsman needed to be more accessible.
Fortunately, not long after I joined the Huntsman team, a change occurred, ushering a second leadership structure in: after the Iowa Straw Poll and Governor Tim Pawlenty’s withdrawal from the race, a considerable amount of resourceful and experienced, New Hampshire-based political operatives were emancipated.
While that team spread out and joined several campaigns, the Huntsman campaign managed to hire Governor Pawlenty’s top advisor. This allowed the Huntsman team to replace their New Hampshire “state director,” with a new “senior advisor” who understood the local landscape better, given her experience not only with Governor Pawlenty’s team but with Senator John McCain’s 2000 and 2008 presidential campaigns.
Practically overnight, Governor Huntsman became more accessible: contacting key, potential supporters directly and investing ‘one-on-one time’ in them. The challenge the campaign faced at this juncture (around October of last year) was that the bulk of these key figures had already committed to Governor Romney; the only ones that were truly shopping for a candidate were those orphaned by the Pawlenty campaign: but most of them refused to support anyone else for weeks and even months. Eventually most were courted by Pawlenty into the Romney campaign.
So despite this positive change in leadership, the timing presented a nearly insurmountable challenge. Other than courting former Pawlenty supporters, two of Governor Huntsman’s only other opportunities were to siphon any of Governor Rick Perry’s supporters as they fled his campaign after to a near-endless string of blunders, and to attract libertarian-leaning Republicans with a pragmatist streak who had reservations about Congressman Paul.
This challenge aside, all campaign changes seemed to be moving the effort in the right direction. Once new campaign leaders opened the candidate up to key supporters and increased his town hall efforts, there was measurable movement in the polls.
Yet, the campaign would eventually undergo a third leadership transition: not due to any problems in New Hampshire but due to a collapsing national structure, a prohibitive financial picture, and the need to capitalize on growing momentum in New Hampshire aggressively despite a lack of discernable presence in national polls.
This third leadership phase consisted of a convergence of the national and New Hampshire campaign structures. The question was whether the presence of the national leadership team in New Hampshire would result in a paradigm shift that would reverse much of the progress the campaign was making.
The national leadership team, faced with these circumstances, began to focus on New Hampshire with hopes that a steady, continuous surge that had developed in local polls would reach that sweet spot all campaigns want to reach by primary day (in Governor Romney’s case, given his lead from day one, it meant an effort to maintain momentum rather than build toward it). For the most part, it seemed these national campaign leaders understood what had been accomplished thus far and seemed to assimilate the existing team’s approach.
The plan to merge the national and New Hampshire campaign leadership was a tactical, strategic, and necessary decision. It wasn’t inherently negative but signaled that the campaign was facing additional challenges beyond its operation on the ground in New Hampshire. This, combined with the added pressure of a very early primary election date in the Granite State meant additional challenges were forthcoming. While the campaign was fortunate that the New Hampshire primary wasn’t scheduled as early as December, the January 10th date offered little relief.
By November and December the campaign was simply racing against time: the surge in the polls was moving at a steady and slow pace in New Hampshire but the question was whether or not the primary date would be set far out enough to give the Huntsman team the time it needed to gain traction toward either first or second place. At the time, the campaign felt these were the two slots that would sustain efforts into upcoming primaries. The Secretary of State’s eventual decision to stage the New Hampshire primary just a few days after the holidays really limited the time the campaign could use to gain proper traction.
Eventually, it became evident that the convergence of national and state staff members didn’t have a negative effect on the New Hampshire effort. In fact, once the national and state teams converged it created problems in other states: the single-state strategy seemed to make sense on the surface but caused the campaign to overlook (whether by accident or necessity) key strategic possibilities such as the potential to skip a heavy investment in South Carolina and to focus intensely on Florida.
In this sense, the single-state strategy may have cost the campaign an opportunity to do well in a much larger and key state: there were some of us who felt the Governor would have been served well by pursuing key endorsements in the Hispanic community – particularly Puerto Rico’s Governor Luis Fortuño. Despite all the endorsements that Governor Romney had already secured in Florida, there were those of us that sensed an opportunity in a state that would receive some of the Governor’s positions more enthusiastically (particularly on issues like immigration) than Granite Staters might. In addition, Governor Huntsman’s wife is originally from Florida, adding weight to the case for a focused effort in that state.
But if the resources weren’t there for this effort in Florida, the campaign should have gone full throttle after potential Paul supporters in New Hampshire while they could: many who were inclined to support Paul on ideological grounds were disenchanted by some of his most ardent supporters – they were looking for someone who exuded a different type of personality: someone who came across as more presidential.
In hindsight, this may have been the most fatal of the campaign’s mistakes in New Hampshire. Had Governor Huntsman beat Congressman Paul in New Hampshire he may have done well in subsequent primaries. The margin between Paul and Huntsman on New Hampshire’s primary night was 6% - or 15,000 votes.
Did the campaign lose an opportunity to correct these mistakes or to leverage alternative resources along the way? Yes.
Campaigning in New Hampshire for Governor Huntsman
If there was one key approach I personally felt created difficulties for the campaign, it was its relentless focus on ‘blue chip supporters’ at the expense of new, energetic campaign supporters who may have been as well or better qualified to contribute to the Governor’s campaign effort.
While Governor Huntsman coalesced considerably strong support this way, producing an impressive roster of recognized and accomplished community leaders around him, this wasn’t enough to compel everyone to join his campaign: in New Hampshire there are those who have learned to (as former Prime Minister Tony Blair would say) play it long and “weigh the risks to an infinite balance” before declaring their support for a candidate. If a campaign is not careful, these individuals can become a disproportionate distraction.
This type of potential “supporter” has mastered the art of drawing out the political courtship ritual with the candidate and his or her staff members. This typically works to their advantage as they play their own “hard-to-get” game and end up putting very little sweat equity or taking very few risks on behalf of or with the candidate and his staff – particularly because they tend to become “involved” quite late in the effort, e.g., when the media begins to turn up in considerable volume at campaign events and when the candidate’s poll numbers are already suggesting a potential victory or valuable, strong showing in the upcoming primary.
These individuals are then endowed by campaigns with a disproportionate and bloated sense of importance that travels with them from election cycle to election cycle. While this can be a generally harmless, political East Coast Swing, it’s easy to see how presidential campaigns can lose focus if they invest their energies excessively in this ritual: ultimately, television advertising combined with grassroots efforts is what truly earns votes. Endorsements and the importance of these individuals can be easily overstated.
Looking back, I feel the Huntsman campaign made the inadvertent mistake of waiting too long for these “blue chip supporters” to come on board before rounding up existing steering committee members regularly at campaign headquarters for strategy sessions. It may have also at times overlooked the strength of the state steering committee it had already built: overlooking, in the process, other potential constituencies they might persuade, and not recognizing that through any amount of campaign leadership changes these folks were the constant variable that actually glued that campaign effort together no matter who came and went.
Within a few days of the actual New Hampshire primary the amount of press surrounding all the campaigns becomes overwhelming: my wife and I were interviewed by newspapers from Salt Lake City, Los Angeles, Boston… even European newspapers. In that time-frame, you get a sense of finality. You don’t recognize the majority of faces around you at campaign events anymore because so many people show up right at the end. In fact, I remember my mother visiting during those last few days. We took her to an event hoping she would get a chance to meet the Governor briefly – this was, after all, the campaign we had invested so much into since the previous summer: things had changed so much in those last few days it became clear to us we probably wouldn’t get a chance to talk to the Governor.
On the evening of the primary I reconnected with many of the great folks I had met in the course of the campaign. These folks ran a fine campaign – had they been able to overcome the challenges I mention above, Governor Huntsman may have done better in New Hampshire and may have been able to develop a strategy for Florida. But on that evening we didn’t get a chance to talk to the Governor or to say goodbye. We knew he would go on to South Carolina – but six days later, before the Palmetto State primary, the Governor withdrew from the race.
I’ve only communicated with the Governor once since he withdrew from the presidential race. I really believe the Governor will return to politics. The Governor once stated political parties go through philosophical pendulum swings: eventually the GOP will take a more pragmatic approach. That’s the Governor’s place in the GOP, and potentially, in national politics. All of us who supported his campaign have gone in different directions. Most of us support Governor Romney, others Governor Gary Johnson... some might even support President Obama. But I think we would all agree we’re looking for a unifying approach – and Governor Huntsman brought this approach to the table.
For us, it’s only a matter of time until others recognize this is a necessity, not just political theory.