It seems Zvika Krieger was already at work on a profile of Utah Governor Jon Huntsman before he unexpectedly agreed to take the Ambassador to China job. His conclusions about that business—partly politically motivated on Obama’s part, but it works because Huntsman’s so well-qualified, and it works for Huntsman since he doesn’t think a moderate can win unless the GOP gets a thrashing first in 2012—are probably correct, but not all that new and interesting. What is interesting is this theory of why Huntsman started drifting into the reform camp in the first place:
Huntsman seems to have learned another lesson from the Romney campaign: A Mormon, no matter how conservative, cannot win amongst the right wing of the party–particularly evangelicals. Romney thought he could win their favor by becoming a drum-beating social conservative, underestimating the deep-rooted antipathy many evangelicals have toward Mormons. A recent Pew poll found that 39 percent of evangelicals hold negative views of Mormons–a sentiment Mike Huckabee used against Romney. Though RNC Chair Michael Steele was lambasted last week for saying “the base … rejected Mitt because it had issues with Mormonism,” he wasn’t that far off: According to a study by John C. Green and Mark Silk, the size of the evangelical community was one of the best predictors of Romney’s success or failure in each state; without the evangelical vote, they argue, Romney probably would have won in four of the five southern states he lost. In light of Romney’s experience, the more likely base for Huntsman would have been the moderate wing of the party, which is less concerned with religion in general (and the LDS church specifically).
I’m not sure that Huntsman’s really hit on a “solution” to this problem. It seems to me that given evangelicals’ large numbers, the tendency, come what may, will be for an evangelical-friendly candidate to win. Which is to say, a Protestant Christian who favors banning abortion and is hostile to claims of gay and lesbian equality. Of course given the winner-take-all nature of most GOP presidential primaries, it’s always possible for an unlikely Republican candidate to prevail against a divided field. But a Mormon intrinsically has a steep hill to climb.