Can Jon Huntsman Win The New Hampshire Primary?

Amb. Jon Huntsman

Jon Huntsman will announce next Tuesday that he is officially a candidate for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination. Amb. Huntsman is unknown to most GOP primary voters and caucus attenders and is regarded with some suspicion by Republican activists because of his service in the Obama Administration as US Ambassador to China.

Unknown candidates who are viewed with some suspicion have only one campaign strategy option.  They have to pick an early state, bet their entire campaign on winning there and then do exactly that. If (and it’s a huge “if”) they can show first-place strength early in the process, they can ride that momentum to a very strong showing in the states that follow. 

This is what Jimmy Carter did in Iowa in 1976. It’s what George H.W. Bush did in Iowa in 1980. It’s what John McCain did in New Hampshire in 2000.  It’s what John Kerry did in Iowa in 2004.  It’s what Barack Obama did in Iowa in 2008. 

Jon Huntsman is betting his entire campaign on winning the New Hampshire primary, which at the moment seems like a fool’s errand.  Mitt Romney ran a strong second to Senator McCain there in 2008 and leads (by a wide margin) in all the recent. reputable Granite State polls. In addition, Mr. Romney served as governor of neighbouring state Massachusetts for four years and is a known commodity among New Hampshire voters. They like him. 

The Huntsman campaign knows all that, but they think that (1) Mr. Romney has a glass jaw (which they call “authenticity”), and (2) New Hampshire may like its neighbouring favourite son, but it loves a surging underdog above all else.  Mr. Huntsman’s handlers’ aim is to make him the “surging underdog,” by waging what they are promising will be the “most aggressive” New Hampshire presidential primary campaign in the state’s history.

Can it work?  Sure.  New Hampshire really does love a surging underdog.  And Huntsman’s political profile (conservative, with a strong independent streak) meshes nicely with the state’s GOP presidential primary voters. Because independent voters will likely comprise as much as half of the New Hampshire GOP primary electorate — there being no contested Democratic presidential primary — Amb. Huntsman doesn’t have to compete just among Republican primary voters alone.  He can fish in a bigger pond. Which he will do.

That’s his whole campaign in a nutshell: expand the electorate. He certainly has the money to wage this effort. And if he’s successful, the national Romney operation will probably coalesce around him (after a while). So he won’t be a one-hit wonder. He’ll be the “traditional/maverick” GOP champion, which has been the winner’s circle going all the way back to 1988.  

Romney has to win New Hampshire.  If he doesn’t, it’s the functional equivalent of him losing his home state. It will be a fatal blow to his campaign. 

If Hunstman doesn’t win, well, no one really expected him to anyway. He has the key advantage of the long shot: he has nothing to lose.

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