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2012 Watch: Can This Dog Huntsman?; or, Who Decides What a Major Candidate Is?

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Huntsman. / US Department of State

Public Policy Polling recently conducted a survey of Republican voters in early caucus state Iowa. In it, they placed former Utah governor Jon Huntsman‘s support at one.

Not number one. Not 1%. One guy polled says he would vote for Huntsman. Meanwhile, former Godfather’s Pizza CEO and Tea Party darling Herman Cain came in tied for second place, at 15 percent. This is a TV blog, so I’m guessing you may never have heard of Cain. Or even eaten a Godfather’s pizza. So: impressive, right?

And yet Jon Huntsman is treated in Republican campaign coverage as a “top-tier candidate”—together with Tim Pawlenty, the two candidates now seen as having the best chance of beating out Mitt Romney. He’s gotten this designation multiple times. And Herman Cain? “Long shot.” “Underdog.”

Maybe he is. But then what kind of dog is Huntsman? And why is anyone making these distinctions now?

Now, let me acknowledge what should be obvious: polls at this stage of a campaign are not a very good guide as to who’s going to win. At this point in 2007, the nominations were a lock for Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani. And Iowa is just one state, with its own particular (conservative, “values”-oriented) electorate.

But you know what else is an unreliable guide as to who has a chance to win? Gut analysis based on less concrete evidence than even an unreliable early poll. That, however, is pretty much what is determining political reporters’ sense right now of who is a “serious” candidate, and thus who will get more coverage and attention as the race unfolds—which could in turn affect the race.

[Let me acknowledge one other thing: that we would be a lot better off at this stage just covering what the various candidates believe in, rather than their position in the horserace—but that's a constant problem, and one for another post.]

I asked a couple of colleagues more informed than I am about election coverage why Huntsman, in particular, gets treated as a major “Romney alternative.” And to be fair, there are reasons. He has access to a lot of family money. He’s attracted some high-profile talent to run his campaign team. He’s considered by insiders (including Democrats who might have to wage  campaign against him) as as having potential crossover appeal in a general election.

Fair enough. Again—not a campaign reporter here. As a layman who follows political news, though, I can see there is one thing that Huntsman does not yet have: the demonstrated ability to make people want him to be the President, which is pretty much the sine qua non of running. Herman Cain has shown that, Ron Paul has shown it and, yes, Sarah Palin has. (Will she run? I have no idea, though you don’t usually run for vice president because you would never want to be the President.)

Now, their support may evaporate, and Huntsman may catch fire. (Despite being, e.g., a former Obama ambassador to China running among Obama-bashing Republicans.) What do I know? But at this point, what real basis is there to place them in different tiers, much less place Huntsman above them?

The point here—and the reason I’m picking on Huntsman as an example, whom I have nothing against—is that any ranking of GOP candidates now is based on suppositions and assumptions. In Huntsman’s case, and maybe in others, we can see that the people who cover campaigns have certain built-in preconceptions: about what makes a “serious” candidate, about what kind of person has the gravitas to be taken as a contender, and what kinds of resources are required to win a primary. They are based on a certain understanding of the rules of the game. Handsome, moneyed pol with connections, a smooth way of talking and ambassadorial experience = serious man.

Political reporters have a right to draw on their expertise. But we should also keep in mind that the history of recent years has been the history of the fallibility of insider expert opinion.

All of which suggests that maybe it’s better to hold off on picking “tiers” of candidates yet—or at least basing them on some kind of empirical evidence. Or again, just ignoring the horse race (and the pizza dinners) and covering the actual policy debates. The people who cover Washington politics know much more about their subject than I do, I have no doubt. But it’s possible, just maybe, that they don’t know more than—well, every voter in Iowa besides that one guy.

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