In recent weeks, the presidential campaign of former Utah governor Jon Huntsman has received a tremendous amount of publicity in the USA, out of all proportion to the tiny levels of support that the governor has shown in opinion polls. This has puzzled many people; a Google search for “Why does Jon Huntsman get so much press?” brings up, as of the moment I write this, 441,ooo results. I have an idea as to the solution of this puzzle.
Perhaps the current Republican presidential contest reminds reporters of the last contest to choose a challenger for an incumbent president, which is to say the Democratic Party’s race eight years ago. At this point in that race, three Democratic candidates seemed to be leading the pack: Governor Howard Dean, Senator Joseph Lieberman, and General Wesley Clark. Governor Dean topped most polls, but was unacceptable to key Democratic constituencies and did not play well on television. Most of Senator Lieberman’s support came from a small group that is disproportionately influential in the political process, namely pro-war Democrats. Unable to broaden his appeal beyond that group, he was fading fast by September 2003. General Clark had stirred considerable excitement when he entered the race late, but he lacked staying power and by the time the voting started he had fallen far behind several other candidates. The eventual nominee was Senator John Kerry, who in September of 2003 was polling in the neighborhood of 1% of likely Democratic voters, but who had one of the most impressive resumés of any candidate and who, due to the fact that he had married an extremely rich widow, could finance his own campaign.
Compare that with the Republicans this time out. The three candidates who appear to be the strongest at the moment are Governor Willard “Mitt” Romney, Representative Michele Bachmann, and Governor Rick Perry. Of these, Governor Romney has long topped most polls, but is unacceptable to key Republican constituencies and does not play well on television. Most of Representative Bachmann’s support comes from a small group that is disproportionately influential in the political process, namely ultra-right Evangelicals. So far unable to broaden her appeal beyond that group, she is fading fast at this point. Governor Perry stirred considerable excitement when he entered the race late, but it is unclear whether he will have staying power enough to remain in the top tier by the time the voting starts. Governor Huntsman is, as of September 2011, polling in the neighborhood of 1% of likely Republican voters, but he has one of the most impressive resumés of any candidate and, due to the fact that he is the son of the man who invented the packaging for McDonald’s Big Mac, he can finance his own campaign.
One might be forgiven for thinking that the history of this month’s Republican presidential race is a repeat of the history of the September 2003 Democratic presidential race. Of course, that does not imply that the events of October 2011 through November 2012 will in any particular way resemble the events of October 2003 through November 2004. But the similarity of the two contests up to this point, and the resemblance between Governor Huntsman’s position now and Senator Kerry’s then, might explain why he receives so much more media attention than do other candidates with equal or lesser levels of popular support.