One thing we can say for sure about American politics: the maneuvering never stops. Even at this absurdly early date, a full two years before the openings in Iowa and New Hampshire, speculation already abounds about the 2016 election matchups.
Hillary Clinton is well ahead in the Democratic polls – by a 5-to-1 margin in the most recent surveys. But the Republican field is wide open, with no candidate topping 25 percent over the past six months and “undecided” sometimes ahead. New Jersey’s Republican Gov. Chris Christie has been slightly ahead in most polls of Republicans since his re-election last November. Before the George Washington Bridge flap, there was a concerted effort among some of the Republican Party “regulars” – who raise money, do the day-to-day work on campaigns, promote the party in the media and are sometimes known as the Republican Establishment – to make Christie the Republican front-runner.
There’s a saying: Democrats like to fall in love, Republicans like to fall in line. Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican nominee, thinks Christie could “save” the party. “They don’t come any better than Chris Christie,” Romney told “Meet the Press.” Orrin Hatch, the most senior Republican in the Senate, said Christie “is really on the right track, if the Republican Party is not too stupid.”
So assuming he had no prior knowledge of “Bridgegate,” how might the New Jersey governor do in a presidential campaign?
Let’s start with the good prospect that many voters will be seeking a change in 2016. Only once since 1950 (roughly when television began to have so much influence on American society) has either party won three presidential elections in a row – in 1988, when President George H.W. Bush succeeded Ronald Reagan. With the troubled start of the health care program and President Obama’s job approval rating consistently below 50 percent for nearly a year, almost any reasonable Republican will start out with Romney’s 47 percent of the popular vote. And the 2016 GOP nominee could be riding a national wave that pushes him over 50 percent unless the president can turn his second term around. So the 2016 Republican nominee may well start off as the mild favorite.
But can Christie make it through the Republican nominating process? That may be his toughest challenge of all. Even before the bridge scandal broke, Rush Limbaugh, perhaps the premier conservative media personality, opined that for many Republican voters, “Christie ended his chances one week before the 2012 elections by embracing Barack Obama. I don’t know that that’s something I’m gonna ever really forget. That was the biggie. That’s just me. Although I happen to think that’s a big deal for a lot of people, and the people inside the Beltway do not understand that.” Numerous other conservative bloggers, such as Erick Erikson of Redstate.com, have also been Christie critics.
Ever since 1964, when conservatives wrested control of the GOP from the “Eastern Establishment” personified by New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, the balance of power has shifted within the Republican Party to the South and the West. Those aggressive, young, conservative activists opposed the compromises of Eastern Republicans with liberals that they dismissed as the “Dime-store New Deal.” Goldwater’s strategy was to write off big Eastern states like New York and Pennsylvania, but add the conservative (and traditionally Democratic) South to the normally Republican states of the Mountain West and Midwest in an all-conservative coalition. He did not succeed, but Republican Presidents Richard Nixon, Reagan and Bush certainly did. Since the 1980s ended, Republicans have lost almost every Northeast state in six consecutive national elections which, combined with the loss of the West Coast, has made fashioning a national majority that much more difficult.
Romney, the practical former governor of Massachusetts who won the nomination in 2012, was an exception. He had the good luck to run in a divided field of conservatives, winning the crucial primaries in New Hampshire, Florida, Michigan and Ohio with less than 50 percent of the vote. But a charismatic conservative in the Reagan mold could have easily unified the right and defeated him.
The good news for Christie is that he will likely be the only moderate Northeastern Republican in the 2016 field, and numerous conservatives – Rick Santorum, Rand Paul, Mike Huckabee, Scott Walker, Paul Ryan and perhaps Sarah Palin or Jeb Bush – are set to run. While Christie will never be the first choice of conservatives due to his criticisms of the tea party, his moderate positions on gay rights and gun control, and cooperation with the president, he may win the bare minimum to triumph in another crowded Republican primary. He will be the solid favorite in the Northeast, including the leadoff New Hampshire primary. And the crucial Florida primary is full of retirees from the Northeast. If Christie can also win a few big Midwestern states like Illinois, Michigan or Ohio, he’s going to be awfully tough to stop. In the end, he may benefit most from former Census Bureau Director Richard Scammon’s rule: “happiness is a divided opposition.”
If Christie wins the nomination, Democrats can expect him to be a very tough opponent. After a punishing Great Recession and slow recovery, 2016 would likely be an “anger/anxiety election” like 1980 or 2008, both of which broke for the “out party.” In such a case, the governor’s reputation for straight talk and toughness would be a distinct asset.
There are several other reasons why Christie could be very strong:
Ethnicity: He comes from an Irish/Italian Catholic family, and Catholics in the large metropolitan areas have emerged as the nation’s premier swing group, voting the national winner of every election from 1972 to 2008.
Location: Christie’s “electability” case is that he can bring back the suburbs and compete in the Frost Belt. Ever since Ross Perot broke the Republican grip on suburbia in 1992, Republicans have struggled. Any Republican who wins back the suburbs of New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and Detroit will be well on his way to victory.
Independence: The governor has emphasized that he works well with Democrats and independents. Facing a heavily Democratic State Legislature, he’s cajoled them into reforms of state pensions and spending priorities. When the Republicans in Washington held up aid for New York and New Jersey after Hurricane Sandy, he didn’t hesitate to blast the House Republican leadership. Such outspokenness can only help him with Democrats and independents.
Persona: Christie got his start in government as a prosecutor going after corrupt officials. Since then, he’s honed his image as a blunt, straight-talking reformer who’s not afraid to take on special interests. He’s naturally articulate and usually gets his point across. He also has a sense of humor. When he appeared on the “Late Show with David Letterman” last year to discuss his weight and health, he pulled out a doughnut and started munching on it while the audience howled with laughter. (Christie has since announced that he had stomach-staple surgery to curb his appetite).
Message: Christie aimed his message of reforming government directly at the middle class, arguing that getting the budget under control today will allow for more innovation tomorrow. One California Republican consultant, who once worked for former Buffalo Rep. Jack Kemp, thinks Christie can appeal to core Republican voters with a mix of his fiscal conservatism and social tolerance, while still remaining pro-life. And as a governor, he can distance himself from the more controversial aspects of the Bush-Cheney legacy, especially on foreign policy. Here, Christie’s bluntness can help, by saying, “while I respect Dick Cheney, he will have no role in my administration.”
Will his weight be an issue? Not necessarily. In 2009, opponent Jon Corzine ran ads accusing Christie of “throwing his weight around” to get out of parking tickets that featured close shots of Christie’s largeness. Chicago Tribune columnist Steve Chapman called it “Corzine’s Big, Fat Political Mistake: The really plus-sized mistake was undertaking to alienate the hordes of voters who are carrying extra pounds. With more and more voters afflicted with weight problems, the political environment will probably become more accommodating to large candidates.” After that incident, Christie rallied to win.
Does he have weaknesses? Of course. Candor and bluntness can sometimes tip over into bullying and argumentativeness, two things voters could quickly tire of. Christie sometimes seems more interested in lecturing voters than persuading them. Like most elected officials, he has a healthy ego. Watching Christie’s 2013 victory speech, Pat Buchanan wrote, “Humility is not the governor’s strong suit.” He’s untested on national issues and, until recently, hasn’t been scrutinized by the national media.
Given New Jersey’s reputation for scandals, skullduggery and political bosses, it would be surprising if there aren’t a few controversies in Christie’s background. Recently, some of his staffers were forced out when it was revealed that they had punished the mayor of Fort Lee, N.J., for refusing to endorse Christie by shutting down lanes to the George Washington Bridge, thus causing massive traffic jams. The governor stepped forward at a Jan. 9 news conference televised worldwide on cable to announce he was disciplining his staff and took some of the blame, saying, “I’m responsible for what happens under my watch.” I agree with former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan: “If everything the governor said stacks up, he’ll wind up diminished but the story will fade. If it doesn’t, he’ll be finished as a national figure.”
Very few candidates are ideal and Christie certainly has flaws. But in this writer’s view, his strengths exceed his liabilities. Democrats would be making a huge mistake to underestimate him. If Christie can lose a few pounds and tone down his abrasiveness, he could be the strongest Republican candidate since Reagan in the 1980s.
Patrick Reddy is a Democratic political consultant in California. He is the co-author of “California After Arnold” and the author of the forthcoming “21st Century America,” a study of national politics.