Rather than become the threat President Barack Obama’s team perceived Jon Huntsman to be, the former Utah governor spent most of 2011 struggling to appeal to the broader Republican Party electorate. But it was what they shunned – namely his attempts to transcend politics and occupy the nonpartisan ether – that attracted a demographic key to his future electoral prospects: young people.
Although Huntsman consistently swatted down the notion that his 2012 run was merely a dress rehearsal for 2016 or beyond, he clearly realized the appeal his message had to young voters and wisely worked to zero in on them. And the favor was returned.
At nearly every college campus he visited, capacity crowds welcomed him. According to the student newspaper at George Washington University, during a visit there folks were turned away due to the overwhelming response. That same week included a sprint through other campuses- Converse College, University of New Hampshire and Winthrop University.
The phenomenon played out during his August visit to Indiana as well. Whereas Herman Cain drew a predominately older – and larger – crowd just two weeks before, it was Huntsman who was able to add generational diversity to his visit. The audience was largely made up of younger voters eager to hear his message and meet the candidate. In fact, Huntsman spent nearly as much time as he did on stage, shaking hands and taking pictures with those admirers before leaving – causing him to be slightly tardy for dinner with Governor Mitch Daniels.
Today, the 18-29 year old demographic his campaign worked hard to covet only accounts for approximately one-fifth of registered voters nationally, but as they get older their influence on the political landscape will only increase. And there’s a lot of good data to suggest Huntsman could leverage that support today in the future.
First, in New Hampshire, thirteen percent of primary voters aged 18-29 chose Huntsman, putting him third among that group. A relatively small number in the grand scheme, but consider Ron Paul got 46 percent of the Millennial vote and he won’t be running again, giving Huntsman more room to grow.
Second, much of Huntsman’s allure was a combination of a moderate tone and a record in sync with young people. On fiscal issues, it was Huntsman who immediately positioned himself as the adult in the room with a Wall Street Journal op-ed on our nation’s suffocating obsession with deficit spending. That piece was enough to earn him the immediate support of Students for Solvency (prior to that called Students for Daniels) a group with over 50 chapters across the country.
Additionally, thanks to recent data from Pew Research we know young people overwhelmingly favor personal Social Security accounts and allowing Americans on Medicare to receive voucher-like financial assistance to purchase private insurance. Both of which are part of the Paul Ryan plan Huntsman unequivocally endorsed.
If it was his conservative fiscal credentials that first drew them to his cause, it may have been Huntsman’s record on foreign policy and social and environmental issues that kept them on board.
In the international arena, today’s youth strongly align with the former ambassador to China and deputy U.S. trade representative. They prefer diplomacy and working with allies to reach common goals, according to Pew. Fully sixty-nine percent said they support strengthening economic ties with China and by a 2-to-1 margin agree free trade is crucial for our economic and diplomatic future.
On social issues, it probably wasn’t Huntsman’s consistent pro-life record, but his support of civil unions that helped him scoop up a quarter of self-described social issue liberals in New Hampshire. Equally important is the environment where young voters strongly adhere to the notion that climate change is man-made. Guess who else does?
For these reasons and more, when today’s Millennials and Generation X’ers are party chairs, elected officials and donors in their own right, Huntsman could very well be their pick to the lead the Grand Old Party.
But is their support alone enough to make a future Huntsman bid a more conceivable success? No.
While one of Huntsman’s greatest assets is his own youth – he will be 52 this March – whether or not he’s a future player in the Republican Party will largely depend on how he spends the next 4 to 10 years. Does he go to the private sector? Does Huntsman get a Cabinet post in a Romney Administration? Perhaps Secretary of State or a return ticket to China? Rumored animosity between the two is moot. If there was ever a time for a modern day team of rivals, this is it.
Huntsman is worth keeping an eye on in the future. Let’s see what does he does to stay part of the conversation and keep himself in the good graces of the next generation.
(FRS: A big hat-tip to Jonathan Martin on his great piece regarding Huntsman’s long-term view of seeking the presidency. While I had been working on this column for a few weeks now, his piece was very instructive in the final product.)