Jon Huntsman has finally cut through the din to get noticed, and how he accomplished this is notable in two ways. One, he did it through Twitter. And two, he expressed views that are completely unremarkable—except in a Republican presidential primary.
The former Utah governor and Obama administration envoy to China has been the forgotten man in the race, far more so than the aggrieved Ron Paul. That has changed, at least temporarily, with Huntsman’s Thursday tweet: "To be clear. I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy."
No one missed the context, since Huntsman flung his revolutionary sentiments into the media mix the same day that Rick Perry conveyed deep skepticism about both evolution and global warming. And just like that, the forgotten man was an online sensation: Most retweets of any candidate for president this year; doubled traffic on his campaign website Thursday; 5,500 new Twitter followers as of Friday morning; surpassed Mitt Romney on the “Klout” scale of social-networking influence; and continuing buzz on both cable and “the twitters.” Huntsman also is a guest Sunday on ABC’s This Week—a booking that preceded his Twitter moment, but which certainly will allow him to capitalize on it.
The Huntsman tweet powerfully reinforced his campaign positioning as the reasonable adult in the field, the only one who supported the congressional debt deal worked out by House Speaker John Boehner, the one who doesn’t temper his support for same-sex civil unions or acceptance of the scientific consensus that the climate is changing for man-made reasons. The “call me crazy” part of it could be read as calling other candidates crazy for rejecting evolution and climate change—an example of Huntsman’s sharper edge in his quest for traction.
The tweet unquestionably puts an exclamation point on a strategy that hasn’t worked so far for a candidate that one GOP strategist, insisting on anonymity for obvious reasons, called “a dead man walking.” But can a tweet change the course of a campaign?
“Call me crazy but it’s probably a good time to buy @JonHuntsman stock,” New Yorker writer Ryan Lizza tweeted Friday. Pat Buchanan, a veteran of the GOP primary process, had the opposite reaction. “If he’s running for the Republican nomination, he is crazy,” Buchanan said on MSNBC. That in fact is the premise of a beautifully photographed Vogue article headlined “Jon Huntsman: The Outsider.”
Whatever you want to call him, Huntsman is a minority in the field and an alien in the party—and headlines like Politico’s “Jon Huntsman winning the Vogue primary” don’t help. Among the major 2012 contenders, only Huntsman, Romney, and Newt Gingrich have said they respect the scientific consensus on climate change. By contrast, 53 percent of Republicans do not believe in global warming, according to a Pew Research Center poll late last year.
As for evolution, we know Romney and Paul believe in it since they didn’t raise their hands in the negative at a 2007 candidate debate. Gingrich told Discover magazine five years ago that “evolution certainly seems to express the closest understanding we can now have” of how we came to be here and should be taught as science. The GOP is in a different place altogether, or at least was in 2007, when Gallup polling found that 68 percent of Republicans did not believe in evolution. That's compared with 61 percent of independents and 57 percent of Democrats who did believe in it.
Thus, Perry was solidly in the mainstream of Republican thinking when he said this week in New Hampshire that scientists have manipulated data on global warming and are coming forward “weekly or even daily” to question the idea that “man-made global warming” is causing climate change. He was in the mainstream when he called evolution a theory “that has some gaps in it” and no doubt gratified many conservatives when he said that “in Texas, we teach both creationism and evolution in our public schools.”
Fact-checkers quickly made short work of all of that. The Washington Post awarded Perry its maximum four Pinocchios (reserved for “whoppers”) in knocking down his “made-up ‘facts’ about climate change.” Politifact, meanwhile, rated Perry’s statement about creationism false because it’s not state law or policy to teach it, and the Supreme Court has ruled that teaching the subject in public schools is unconstitutional.
The reality-based community is playing defense these days, and as the polls suggest, it may be losing the battle within the GOP. That doesn’t particularly bode well for Huntsman, but it does mean that the multiple primary debates coming up this fall should be pretty darn interesting. If Huntsman continues to make a robust case on these issues, perhaps reinforced by Romney and other allies in the field, he will force Republicans to ask themselves this question: in the 21st century, do they want a 19th-century nominee?