Cain and Huntsman: Who got the worst campaign advice?

Matt K. Lewis | Senior Contributor

Campaigns matter — just ask Herman Cain and Jon Huntsman. Both candidates were poorly served by their top advisers. And it shows.

Over at Politico, Jonathan Martin has penned a devastating piece, documenting how Cain’s team badly mishandled his campaign. As Martin writes, “[Cain’s] campaign will go down as one of the most hapless and bumbling operations in modern presidential politics, setting a new standard for how to turn damaging press coverage into something far worse.”

He’s right, of course.

Meanwhile, the New York TimesRoss Douthat aptly describes how the Huntsman campaign badly botched Huntsman’s introduction to the nation:

He picked high-profile fights on two hot-button issues — evolution and global warming — that were completely irrelevant to his candidacy’s rationale. He let his campaign manager define his candidacy as a fight to save the Republican Party from a “bunch of cranks.” And he embraced his identity as the media’s favorite Republican by letting the liberal journalist Jacob Weisberg write a fawning profile for Vogue.

This was political malpractice at its worst. Voters don’t necessarily need to like a candidate to vote for him, but they need to think that he likes them. Imagine a contender for the Democratic nomination introducing himself to liberal voters by attacking Planned Parenthood, distancing himself from “left-wing nutjobs” and giving a series of interviews on Fox News, and you have the flavor of how Huntsman’s opening act was perceived on the right. The substance mattered less than the symbolism, which screamed: I want your vote, but I don’t particularly care to be associated with your stupidities.

Douthat, by the way, nails the problem. It’s the symbolism. You see, it’s not that Huntsman couldn’t believe in evolution or climate change and still win the nomination — it’s that the issues he chose to define his campaign were “completely irrelevant to his candidacy’s rationale.”

During a recent exclusive interview, I pressed Huntsman on this very point — asking him if he made a mistake by emphasizing stances that are at odds with mainstream conservative opinion. Without saying as much, he essentially conceded the point.

Maybe that means he’s learning? We can only wonder what would have happened had Jon Huntsman begun his campaign by tacking to the right — just as we can only wonder what would have happened if Herman Cain had surrounded himself with top-notch advisers who were more adept at managing crisis communications.

It’s easy to understand why Cain — a relative political neophyte — might surround himself with a not-yet-ready-for-prime-time team (though interestingly, Cain had some quality advisers when he ran for U.S. senate in Georgia). What is less understandable, however, is how the former Governor of Utah — and a U.S. Ambassador — could be so politically tone deaf as to think the path to the GOP nomination begins by stressing the areas in which he is at odds with the base.

Cain is essentially finished, but Huntsman still has a chance at a comeback in New Hampshire. You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression, but there is still time to turn things around.

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