Newt Gingrich is rising in the polls to challenge Mitt Romney for the Republican nomination now that Michelle Bachmann and Rick Perry and Herman Cain have gotten their turn and flamed out. Given the desperation of anti-Romney GOP primary voters, it has to be asked why they felt that these four people all merited a serious look, but Jon Huntsman — sentenced to 2 percent polling in perpetuity — did not. Why is Governor Huntsman seemingly the very last kid to get picked for the kickball team?

The pat explanation is that he’s a moderate, a Lincoln Chafee/Nelson Rockefeller type in a party gone far to the right. But this simply isn’t true: He is pro-life, anti-gun control and wants to cut taxes and repeal the Affordable Care Act. He governed Utah well to the right of how Romney governed Massachusetts, and he has been more consistent on conservative positions than Newt Gingrich over the years (I know being more consistent than Gingrich is a low bar, but remember that’s the guy who just zoomed past Huntsman in the “anything but Romney” sweepstakes).

I have written before about how anti-Mormonism was one of the founding principles of the Republican Party and how Christian Evangelicals harbor deep suspicions about the LDS Church. On the face of it, one could argue that those prejudices have faded away; how else could Romney now have a good shot at the GOP nomination?

But there is another possibility that could explain both Romney’s inability to close the deal and Huntsman’s lagging campaign. Maybe those GOP primary voters who are comfortable with a Mormon candidate have already gone to Romney, and the ones who are still in play are largely those with negative views of Mormons. If that is what is going on, Huntsman cannot rise as an alternative to Romney because that would require anti-Mormon voters to ensure a Mormon GOP candidate (by making it a race between two Mormons). If and when Gingrich collapses, these voters will turn to Rick Santorum or Ron Paul or anyone else they can think of other than another Mormon.

If anti-Mormonism is indeed driving voters from him, Huntsman’s only path to the nomination is not to scoop up the votes that haven’t gone to Romney yet but to go after the people who are currently supporting Romney and convincing them to switch horses. At this point, that’s probably impossible.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

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Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and served as Senior Policy Advisor in the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy in the Obama Administration. @KeithNHumphreys