"2012: The Trajectories of Huntsman and Romney "
SquareTwo, Vol. 2 No. 2 (Summer 2009)
A professor once told me, “You have to have a thick skin to write about Mormons or politics in Mormon country. If you write about both, well, let's just say you need to develop a sense of humor.” That same professor also warned me about trying to predict the future.  The relationship between LDS Church members and their politics can be touchy, and it is always safer to talk about the past than the future. Despite the inherent risks, in this essay I will do some of both. The 2008 presidential elections witnessed an unprecedented event: a member of the LDS Church was a serious contender for the office. Mitt Romney has had a long business and political career, and he hoped that career would culminate in the White House. Romney did not survive the Republican primaries, but his activities since the election suggest that another run in 2012 is all but certain.
The likelihood of a Romney run in 2012 is complicated by speculation that Jon Huntsman, Jr., Utah’s moderate governor and President Obama’s nominee for Ambassador to China, is considering a run in the GOP primaries as well. Huntsman’s assignment in China will likely preclude a 2012 run; but questions about the dynamic of two LDS frontrunners may be equally relevant in the 2016 elections, especially if Obama proves unbeatable in 2012.
Suppose we assume that both Romney and Huntsman plan to run for president in the next election for which Republicans are viable contenders. In this hypothetical election, we will assume that Huntsman has already served as the U.S. Ambassador to China since he has accepted the post. In the first part of this essay, I consider three questions: What strategies can we expect Romney and Huntsman to employ in a presidential race? How can we expect each strategy to fare in Republican primaries? How would each candidate fare in a general election? In the second part of the essay I will discuss possible implications of LDS presidential campaigns for the Church—and the same relationship in reverse.
Of course, predicting the future is a risky business, and much will change before this election occurs. The GOP is engaged in a search for leadership and identity, and party dynamics may change significantly in coming years. The LDS Church itself recently engaged publicly in politics; this engagement revealed some disagreement among Church members, and future engagements could become platform challenges for LDS politicians. Amidst this uncertainty, I ask that readers not confuse analysis with candidate preference, or speculation with forecasting
I. Platforms and Elections
Romney’s failed 2008 primary bid offers insight into his next one. He became the candidate of choice for many GOP power brokers and was a favorite of many Congressional Republicans.  He was supported by several GOP talking heads, including Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and Anne Coulter; in a curious bid to influence primary results, the latter three even promised to vote for Hillary Clinton if Romney was not chosen. Romney’s struggle was with social conservatives in states like Iowa where he lost to former Christian pastor Mike Huckabee. Romney’s religion was a hot topic for debate, and many supporters felt that it cost him the election.
However, Romney’s religion problem was compounded by a confusing political record regarding social issues. Running against Ted Kennedy for a Senate seat in 1994, Romney supported legal abortion and promised to be to the left of Kennedy on gay rights, even getting the endorsement of the Log Cabin Republicans.  Many commentators perceived him as having been a moderate governor in Massachusetts. His record contradicted his checklist conservative 2008 platform, giving many voters the impression that Romney lacked conservative credentials or was a phony without genuine beliefs.  This view was reinforced as Romney changed strategies throughout the race; after the Iowa primary, largely seen as a referendum on “change,” Romney’s new campaign slogan became “Washington is Broken,” and “change” became a common theme of his stump speeches. His criticism of John McCain for being too moderate may have appeared disingenuous to many voters who remembered his previous record; at any rate, he must have seen that a stronger conservative record would have made his campaign easier.
As a result of his difficulty establishing conservative credentials, since the election Romney has invested heavily in proving his conservatism. He has created a political action committee (PAC) called Mitt Romney’s Free and Strong America, and he has written dozens of editorials and speeches advocating conservative policies. In November he wrote a New York Times editorial condemning possible auto industry bailouts with the argument that past government interventions have caused the current industry problems, and more interventions would only prevent needed reforms.  In February his PAC donated $1,000 to groups working against Obama’s economic stimulus plan.  He opined in Newsweek in support of market-based healthcare including mandatory insurance, tax credits for low-income households, non-threshold coinsurance systems instead of deductibles, reforms to Medicare and Medicaid, and state discretion on further plans.  He articulated a conservative approach to labor unions in the Washington Times, advocating the protection of secret ballots warning of the destruction of democracy in unions.  In the Boston Herald, he criticized President Obama’s soft tone on foreign policy, claiming that the US deserves the world’s thanks and advocating “regime-crippling sanctions” on North Korea.  During the recent protests in Iran, Romney joined the chorus of conservative commentators in criticizing Obama’s response to the regime’s crackdown.  These publicity efforts have been re-enforced by a flurry of PAC press releases articulating patent conservative positions on tax policy, abortion, foreign policy, the environment, conservative values, and the dangers posed by the Obama administration for the country. In sum, Mitt Romney has been working hard to create documentary evidence of his conservative credentials.
Romney’s recent activities indicate that he is still campaigning for president and that he plans to approach the primaries as a staunch Republican of the brand that many party leaders called for in the last election. Perhaps he hopes to capitalize on the opinions of some conservative talking heads that the Republicans lost in 2008 because they were not sufficiently conservative. Whether he believes this was the reason for the loss is unclear, but his actions indicate that he will approach future primaries with that rationale.
Jon Huntsman Jr. gives fewer clues about a potential presidential platform. For a Republican he has, however, taken controversial positions on several issues. He has often spoken supportively for climate change legislation, a significant position given the tendency of many Republicans to deny that climate change is a problem, and he serves with several Democrats on the Governors Climate Change Task Force.  His explicit support for civil unions and other gay rights has caused alarm among many Republicans, and he was given high praise and an award from Utah’s gay rights groups.  However, he will be accused of flip-flopping on civil unions due to his conservative stance on the issue in the past. In general, though, Huntsman has received praise from liberals and centrists for his moderate stances and governing approach. On economic issues, he has solid conservative credentials. He has signed several tax cuts for businesses and families. Like Romney, Huntsman supports a market-based solution for health care.
Assuming Romney and Huntsman face off in future Republican primaries, and assuming they both stay reasonably close to their current issue positions, how will their different platforms fare? The 2008 primaries and aftermath witnessed attempts by some GOP power brokers to purge the party of moderates. McCain and Giuliani were harshly criticized for their moderate and bipartisan records. Much was said about who would be the heir to the Reagan legacy. In general, Romney abandoned his previous moderate positions in favor of checklist conservatism for a reason: the primaries were hostile to moderates.
The GOP is currently enduring an identity crisis as party leaders vie for power and attempt to define the ideological future of the party. Rush Limbaugh has worked hard to bring the party to its conservative roots, criticizing Republicans like Colin Powell and Christopher Buckley for voting against McCain in the general election. Other party leaders, like David Frum , have harshly criticized Limbaugh and pushed for a more moderate party that would be more competitive in general elections. Some analysts have speculated that Democrats are intentionally attempting to portray Limbaugh as the leader of the Republicans since his polemics are distasteful to moderates.  Regardless, the faction that wins out will determine whether Romney’s or Huntsman’s strategy is more viable.
The cast of future Republican contenders will also affect the LDS candidates’ chances for success in the GOP primaries. The Romney platform would be similar to a run by Sarah Palin or Newt Gingrich; Romney would bring more executive experience than either, though Gingrich has a longer Washington record. If all three are contenders, they may split the far-right vote and open a window for Huntsman to compete closer to the center. However, the fact that Huntsman will have worked for a Democrat president is sure to be used against him.
In 2008, Romney often touted his business experience. Huntsman’s business record is less impressive, but he has extensive international experience as Ambassador to Singapore under George H. W. Bush and Deputy U.S. Trade Representative under George W. Bush. Huntsman also worked in the Reagan administration. We can expect him to emphasize that his international and political experience uniquely qualify him compared to Romney.
Determining Romney’s and Huntsman’s positions on the most important issue in the last election—the economy—is difficult. Amidst some conservative criticism, George W. Bush acted quickly to save failing banks which were “too big to fail.” Obama continued these efforts and added a massive and controversial stimulus package. Romney and Huntsman were both basically silent on the bank bailouts. The bailouts were originally instigated by Republicans with strong free-market credentials (Bush, Henry Paulson, and Ben Bernanke), so Romney and Huntsman might have feared siding against people with similar ideological leanings and more relevant knowledge. Neither was obligated by their positions to opine, giving them the considerable advantage of not having to go on the record about a plan the results of which were difficult to predict. In other words, they might have been simply playing it safe.
Romney, siding with many prominent conservatives, was very vocal in criticizing Obama’s stimulus spending plan. Like many Republicans, he proposed a stimulus based primarily on tax cuts and military spending.  While several Republican governors rejected all or part of the federal stimulus allocated to states, Huntsman accepted the money and even criticized those who rejected it. Huntsman noted that the federal stimulus was not too large, and he used the money to create jobs and housing demand in the construction sector.  Huntsman’s support for the stimulus will be another liability in the primaries, but it will not hurt him in the general election. Both candidates, however, may have to develop more decisive economic platforms if current economic problems are not resolved. Other than opining on the stimulus, neither candidate has proposed ideas for approaching difficult questions about banking and finance regulations. With Americans clamoring for policies to prevent the next crisis, an approach of doing nothing will be unsatisfactory. Candidates running against Democrats, who have a controversial plan but a plan nonetheless, will need a plan of their own to avoid looking like the party of “do nothing.” For now, Romney and Huntsman are not required to opine, but this luxury will not last.
Determining the LDS vote is difficult. LDS Church members voted overwhelmingly for Romney in the 2008 primaries, perhaps confirming fears that Mormons are a cliquish crowd. Romney took 90 percent of Utah votes , and 94 percent of self-identified Nevada Mormons voted for him.  This was an incredible outcome given Romney’s spotty conservative record on social policy, but it may allow us to predict that Mormon votes will go to Mormon candidates in the near future. How will the entrance of another LDS candidate split up LDS loyalties? Huntsman has enjoyed sky-high popularity in Utah, with a 90 percent approval rating in January.  While his stance on civil unions may concern many LDS Church members, his supporters will be quick to note the Church’s official statement indicating that Church leaders are not opposed to the possibility.  Supporters of gay rights have already purchased billboard ads on Utah’s Interstate 15 quoting the LDS Church’s statement, so the coming Utah debate on gay rights may inform future elections.
Ultimately, the primary outcome may depend on what is more important to Republicans: a candidate with solid conservative credentials or a candidate with the best chance of winning a general election. Current sentiment suggests that Huntsman would have more appeal to moderates and Democrats than Romney. Recent polls indicate that more than 60 percent of Americans support legal civil unions and/or marriage for homosexuals, compared to 48 percent of Republicans.  Demographic trends suggest that these numbers will only increase. This issue gives Huntsman the advantage in a general election setting—and makes it a toss-up in the primaries. Opinions on global warming also give Huntsman the advantage, with several polls suggesting that more than 70 percent of Americans think global warming is a problem and that government should regulate greenhouse gasses (opinions on specific policies are harder to parse); only 17 percent of Americans believe that global warming is not occurring.  In the absence of a war or economic instability, these types of issues may define the coming presidential elections.
If the GOP wants a candidate with winning stances on issues people care about, Huntsman will be a better option than Romney. Neutralizing Democrats on these issues will allow the GOP to focus the debate on issues of national security and economics, issues where Republicans can garner voter support. Americans are split or unsure on missile defense, and the likely nuclear weapons proliferation of Iran and North Korea during the next half decade may sway many voters to the Republican position.  If Obama’s strategy of careful world engagement is seen as successful, Romney’s hard-line foreign policy approach will be a liability. Huntsman’s experience in China will be attractive to many voters given our increasingly important economic and environmental relationship with our largest creditor. Obama’s strategic decision to co-opt Huntsman, eliminating the possibility of a 2012 run, may be evidence that he fears Huntsman more than Romney in future elections. Forward-thinking Republicans should count this to Huntsman’s credit when choosing a candidate. While in past elections Romney has shown a tendency to change his platform to suit the electorate, the heavy criticism he received for “flip-flopping” in the 2008 race may prompt him to stay the conservative course; at any rate, Huntsman will have a much easier time making the customary move to the center once the primaries end. Of course, the calculus would change completely if an economic or national security catastrophe were to occur between now and the elections.
II. Politics and the Church
Romney faced many questions about the extent to which LDS Church leadership would affect his presidency. Given LDS doctrines about authority, these may have been valid concerns. Romney and Huntsman will face these questions again in future races.
The LDS Church’s recent involvement in California’s Proposition 8 complicates matters for LDS politicians. Romney often made the case that the Church would not dictate his politics, a concern for many voters. That case will be harder to make for Huntsman and Romney in the future, and the California project will certainly be at the forefront of media and public scrutiny of the candidates. Proposition 8 will not be a major problem in the primaries, but it will certainly come up in the general election. If either candidate makes it that far, Romney will be accused of making his position based on LDS Church instructions, and Huntsman will be questioned about how far his stance on civil unions can go before violating Church rules. Both will face increased criticism and assertions that the LDS Church will be running the White House. While America has now proven capable of voting a minority into the White House, the question of prejudice against Mormons remains unanswered. Regardless, Church leaders will carefully avoid giving any hints about their preferences, and they might make careful statements reinforcing the LDS Church’s official neutrality.
The Romney campaign prompted increased dialogue between LDS Church members and their friends about Church teachings, and Church leaders skillfully took advantage of the new publicity to respond to questions raised by curious observers. However, many conservative Christians, already skeptical of LDS teachings, may have been shaken by Romney’s past views on abortion and gay rights.
High-profile candidacies of Latter-day Saints benefit the LDS Church to the extent that candidates are perceived as honest, principled actors. Unfortunately, the trench warfare of political campaigning is not conducive to positive behavior. Candidates are primarily driven by victory, and victory requires compromising positions. Romney often touted his changes of heart on key issues as legitimate changes of opinion. That may be the case, but to skeptics, his behavior often looked like typical political opportunism. Duplicity in LDS candidates can only serve to reinforce negative stereotypes. Clear-thinking voters recognize that pandering for votes is part of the game, but due to the integrity and values Mormons espouse, LDS candidates are bound to be held to a higher standard in the eyes of the media and public. Missionaries—full-time and member—must deal with the consequences of high-profile politicking.
Perhaps the most important question we should ask is how having a Latter-day Saint in the White House would affect the LDS Church. On the one hand, such an occasion would be a great victory for a people who were once chased from the country. Additionally, there is certainly potential for a competent, honest Mormon US president to have a positive effect on missionary efforts and LDS Church image in general. The divisive nature of politics, however, makes this proposition risky. The Church’s centralized structure makes the relationship between church and members more direct than in other religions. People would have a difficult time disassociating a Mormon US president and his church, and vise versa. Social policy legislation will be particularly relevant. While there are already LDS Church members in powerful positions—the most notable is Harry Reid, the current Senate Majority Leader—no American politician is identified with policy quite like the president. Gospel conversations between LDS Church members and their friends will be vulnerable to politics. Missionaries will be engaged in political discussions more than ever before. Church members would have to be prepared to deal with these issues.
There is foreign side to this issue as well. As a missionary in New Zealand, I was often rejected on doorsteps simply for being from America (this was at the height of the Iraq War when American foreign policy was very unpopular). Many people rejected me before hearing my accent and even when I was with companions from Australia or elsewhere. The LDS Church is very closely associated with America there. One Samoan man once remarked that “America sends bombs to Iraq and missionaries to New Zealand.” Friends in other missions confirmed that they had similar experiences. This experience, along with specific guidance from official manuals, prompted me to go to great lengths to show that the Church is not simply an American church. I was careful to distinguish between the LDS Church and the American government. This case will be much harder for missionaries to make if there is a Mormon in the White House. If America is unpopular, a Mormon in the White House may become a “stumbling block” for those being introduced to the Gospel. LDS missionaries might be received in fewer homes. 
Predicting politics is a risky business; predicting religion and politics is worse. Regardless, how LDS Church members engage in politics affects us all. The increase in potential LDS candidacies for high political office will demand more from both Church members and missionaries. Extensive dialogue between LDS members and non-members would give us opportunities to demonstrate the heterogeneity of Mormon culture. However, dialogue also risks blurring the line between our politics and our religion, so Church members should carefully prepare for the increased engagement. Whatever the risks, LDS Church leaders are confident that publicity will not change the course of the Church and its mission. 
If nothing else, the outcomes of future elections involving LDS Church members provide opportunities for interesting studies into Mormon identity politics. Romney and Huntsman are both accomplished people, and for many Church members, knowing that they share many of our beliefs makes the prospect of their success exciting. Members should think carefully, however, about how these high-profile issues affect the Church.
 This bit of wisdom came from Wade Jacoby, a professor of political science at BYU. [Back to manuscript]
 Jackie Kucinich, “GOP still enamored of Romney,” Roll Call, March 3, 2009, at http://www.rollcall.com/issues/54_95/news/32794-1.html. [Back to manuscript]
 Sam Stein, “McCain accused of gay baiting in anti-Romney attack,” Huffington Post, January 29, 2008, at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2008/01/29/mccain-accused-of-gay-bai_n_83843.html. [Back to manuscript]
 Mitt Romney, “Let Detroit go bankrupt,” New York Times, November 18, 2009, at http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/19/opinion/19romney.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=%20Mitt%20Romney%20
 Andrew Malcolm, “Mitt Romney backs GOP stimulus detractors with his PAC money,” Los Angeles Times blog, no date, at http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/washington/2009/02/romney-obama.html. [Back to manuscript]
 Mitt Romney, “Cautionary tale of card check,” Washington Times, March 25, 2009, at http://washingtontimes.com/news/2009/mar/25/viewing-unions-from-the-right-cautionary-tale-of-c/.
 Mitt Romney, “Obama, hold apology. World owes U.S. thanks,” Boston Herald, no date, at http://www.freestrongamerica.com/oped/item/romney_oped_obama_hold_apology_world_owes_us_thanks.
 Jonathan Martin, “Romney calls on Obama to speak out on Iran,” Politico, June 14, 2009, at http://www.politico.com/blogs/politicolive/0609/Romney_calls_on_Obama_to_speak_out_on_Iran.html?showall.
 Rachel Weiner, “Jon Huntsman won’t attend gay rights event, cites scheduling conflicts,” Huffington Post, June 4, 2009, at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/06/04/jon-huntsman-wont-attend_n_211478.html. [Back to manuscript]
 Tom Schaller, a popular analyst who with Nate Silver used sophisticated econometrics to predict the 2008 elections with surprising accuracy, has made persuasive arguments for this claim at http://www.fivethirtyeight.com/2009/06/leader-limbaugh-chalk-one-up-to-obama.html. [Back to manuscript]
 Mitt Romney, “Stimulate the economy, not government,” CNN, February 6, 2009, at http://www.cnn.com/2009/POLITICS/02/06/romney.stimulus/index.html. [Back to manuscript]
 Reihan Salam, “Hunstman blinks,” May 18, 2009, at http://www.forbes.com/2009/05/17/huntsman-china-ambassador-opinions-columnists-obama.html. [Back to manuscript]
 See Washington Post Online at http://projects.washingtonpost.com/2008-presidential-candidates/primaries/states/ut/r/. [Back to manuscript]
 Bob Bernick, Jr., “90% of Utahns like how Huntsman does job,” Deseret News, January 26, 2009, at http://www.deseretnews.com/article/0,5143,705280342,00.html . [Back to manuscript]
 “The Divine Institution of Marriage,” Newsroom, August 13, 2008, at http://newsroom.lds.org/ldsnewsroom/eng/commentary/the-divine-institution-of-marriage . [Back to manuscript]
 I made a similar case to a journalist from the Economist in 2007. Curiously, Romney did not give up his presidential bid as a result of my comments. See “From polygamy to propriety,” Economist, December 19, 2007, at http://www.economist.com/world/unitedstates/displaystory.cfm?story_id=E1_TDPTTPGN. [Back to manuscript]
 “The publicity dilemma,” Newsroom, March 9, 2009, at http://newsroom.lds.org/ldsnewsroom/eng/commentary/the-publicity-dilemma. [Back to manuscript]
Full Citation for This Article: Decker, Ryan (2009) "2012: The Trajectories of Huntsman and Romney," SquareTwo, Vol. 2 No. 2 (Summer), http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleDecker2012.html, accessed [give access date].
Would you like to comment on this article? Thoughtful, faithful comments of at least 300 words are welcome. Please submit to SquareTwo.
1) Kenneth Prigmore, 18 August 2009
I am a new reader, as of today, and I look forward to reading more in the future.
I would like to suggest a clarification to Ryan Decker's Article, "2012: The Trajectories of Huntsman and Romney". It my understanding, from the little I know of Square Two, that LDS church doctrine and beliefs are not under debate, and should therefore be clearly understood between writers and commentators of Square Two.
Mr. Decker made the following comment regarding John Huntsman's stance on civil unions: "While his stance on civil unions may concern many LDS Church members, his supporters will be quick to note the Church’s official statement indicating that Church leaders are not opposed to the possibility. "
Mr. Decker cited as support (or perhaps only as a suggestion of a source referred to by Huntsman supporters, this article wasn't clear on this point) the following:
 “The Divine Institution of Marriage,” Newsroom, August 13, 2008, at http://newsroom.lds.org/ldsnewsroom/eng/commentary/the-divine-institution-of-marriage . [Back to manuscript]
I followed this link to lds.org, and did a page search for the word "Civil." It appeared 7 times, and none of those were references to "Civil Unions." The site did state:
"The Church does not object to rights (already established in California) regarding hospitalization and medical care, fair housing and employment rights, or probate rights, so long as these do not infringe on the integrity of the family or the constitutional rights of churches and their adherents to administer and practice their religion free from government interference."
Nothing in this suggests to me that civil unions are acceptable to the Church. It is my own opinion that if Civil Unions were accepted in Utah, there would be little ground remaining to those, including the LDS Church, who are fighting to prevent the acceptance of actual marriage of gay couples. What is a civil union? Is it any more or less than getting married by a government official? I believe the only real difference between a marriage and a civil union, may be the authority of the religious leader who performs a marriage.
To summarize, it is my opinion that the LDS Church is "opposed to the possibility" of Civil Unions. This is not the focus of the article, and may be too fine a point to be made an issue, however, I wanted to give you my "two cents" and bring the statement to your attention.
Good luck with the new site.
2) Ryan Decker responds, 18 August 2009:
Kenneth Prigmore’s comment is valid. I should have discussed the Church’s statement more carefully. Allow me to expand on the assertion in question.