The dream of a Jon Huntsman independent run in 2016 is alive and well, my friends

After trolling my own readers yesterday with rumors of Huckabee and Romney running again, I’d be remiss if I didn’t troll them with a rumor about a guy they dislike more than either of them.

No half-measures when trolling. That’s my motto.

Former presidential candidate Jon Huntsman has engaged in discussions with supporters in recent months about pursuing another White House bid — this time as an independent, according to three sources close to Huntsman…

Other friends and former aides, however, suggested that the 2016 conversations were primarily a function of Huntsman’s willingness to hear out his supporters — not his interest in the race. Fundraising would be a massive obstacle, one his campaign struggled with mightily in 2012. And securing a place on a nationwide ballot is difficult — and expensive — for any independent candidate…

Before he quit the [2012] race, Huntsman considered going independent twice, once in the summer and again in the fall of 2011, according to a senior member of his campaign staff. Huntsman considered taking advantage of the infrastructure set up by Americans Elect, a nonprofit group that hoped to elect a third-party candidate, but his campaign ultimately dismissed the idea as unrealistic.

He told a newspaper earlier this month that he wouldn’t run again in 2016. He told Larry King a few months before that that he’s “open” to running again but that it’d be pointless to do it as a Republican. There’s simply no path for him through the early primaries, unless you think he’s going to shock Rand Paul, Chris Christie, Scott Walker, and Marco Rubio in New Hampshire. So yeah, an independent bid would be his best bet, at least for a shot at a role in the presidential debates in October. But there’s a risk there: Orrin Hatch says this will be his last term in the Senate and Huntsman, as a former governor with a huge family fortune, is well positioned to replace him in 2018. If he breaks from the GOP in 2016 to run a quixotic, largely symbolic third-party campaign, he’s kissing off lots of Utah’s Republican voters in the Senate race two years later. What he ends up doing will probably depend on how optimistic he is about Republicans nationally trending more towards the center instead of the right over the next 10 years or so. If he thinks that’s likely, then maybe he’ll pass on 2016, run for Senate, and take a shot at the nomination again in 2020 or 2024. If he thinks it’s unlikely, he might as well dive in next year and enjoy 12 months of silly yet flattering “is this the year for independents?” coverage.

But look. I think the odds are better for a semi-serious independent challenger in 2016 than they’ve been in years. I’m not saying Huntsman’s the guy — he probably isn’t — but it’d be surprising if someone didn’t roll the dice. 2008 was a bad year for that because contempt for Washington (specifically, contempt for Bush) was being channeled by Hopenchange. Obama was all things to all people (except committed Republicans), in which case what purpose would an indie candidate have served? 2012 was a better opportunity, but I think it’s hard to jump-start a third-party candidacy when an incumbent president is up for reelection. Voters from the two major parties are too invested in their own sides under those circumstances — Republicans were dead set on ousting O and Democrats were dead set on protecting him. It’s hard to convince people in a situation like that to waste a vote on an indie. The same was true in 2004 when Bush was up for reelection. In 2016, though, you’ll have two non-incumbents duking it out for the presidency; what’s more, one of them is very likely to be named Clinton (and the other quite possibly named Bush), which leaves lots of space for an indie to run against the “Washington machine” and the parasites attached to it. It seems odd to think that two centrist-y candidates like Hillary and Jeb might entice a third-party centrist challenge, but that’s basically what happened with Clinton, Bush, and Perot in 1992, right? And if instead the GOP passes on Jeb and nominates someone more right-wing like Rand Paul or Ted Cruz, so much the better for a third-party type. There’ll be lots of centrist Republicans eager for another option in that case. That doesn’t mean the indie would win, but he could make a splash.

The big problem here, and not just for Huntsman, is that an effective independent candidate absolutely must be a populist — and yet anyone with the dough to fund a national independent candidacy is highly unlikely to be one. That was Perot’s special magic. He was folksy, and he also had billions to spare. Imagine Mike Bloomberg (giggle) trying to play that role. Imagine Huntsman, who famously posed for photos in Vogue in 2011 for a story on his last candidacy, trying to do it. There aren’t many gazillionaires out there and there are even fewer Perots among them.