Is it really so ‘laughable’ for Republicans to nominate Chris Christie for president?

January 15, 2014

(Mel Evans/Associated Press)

Charlie Cook writes:

Think for a moment who makes up the Republican Party, and most specifically the part of the GOP base that dominates the presidential nomination process. Think about the people they seriously considered for their party’s presidential nomination last time around. Think Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Rick Santorum, Rick Perry, and Newt Gingrich. Now, quickly, think Christie. Now think Sesame Street: “One of these things is not like the others; one of these things just doesn’t belong.” It’s laughable that the party that has previously seriously considered some fairly inconceivable candidates as worthy of the GOP nomination would suddenly reverse course and head over to a center-right candidate such as Christie.

I have no strong opinions about whether Christie was ever truly the front-runner for the presidential nomination, and I agree that he would face challenges within some factions of the party.  My sense of whether the scandal will hurt him depends right now on how GOP moderates are reacting.  As I noted on Twitter over the weekend, thanks to some tweets from my Post colleague Robert Costa, at least some GOP moderates have expressed support for him, including Rudy Giuliani, John McCain and Karl Rove.  So I don’t think Christie’s candidacy is now doomed, although certainly it could be weakened.

But I am baffled by this suggestion that the Republican Party is averse to center-right candidates.  One name is conspicuously missing from Cook’s list of candidates.  The, um, actual nominee!  You may remember him.  Mitt something-or-other.

Romney, as Lynn Vavreck and I show in “The Gamble,” was never the unanimous choice of the party, but he was by far the front-runner.   He didn’t lead the polls every day and he didn’t win every primary (few nominees do).  But by the eve of the Iowa caucus, the underlying fundamentals of the race were in his favor, and Gingrich’s and Santorum’s later challenges never amounted to much in terms of actual delegates.

One reason is precisely because the “GOP base” is not composed only of people who prioritize ideological purity above all.  In “The Gamble,” we show that about half of Romney’s supporters voted for him despite being ideologically closer to another, more conservative candidate.  These people tended to believe he could beat Obama in the fall.

In fact, given recent Republican presidential nomination battles, if anything it is more common for the GOP to nominate a relative moderate than a hardcore conservative: Bush 41, Dole, Bush 43, McCain, and Romney.  If we want to talk about the actual Republican nominees, not the also-rans, the type of candidate that’s “not like the others” are the conservatives.

Now perhaps 2016 will be different.  And I’m certainly not forecasting that Christie himself will be the nominee. But nominating a center-right candidate certainly doesn’t require the GOP to “reverse course.” It requires them to do what they’ve been doing in presidential elections for almost 30 years.

John Sides is an Associate Professor of Political Science at George Washington University. He specializes in public opinion, voting, and American elections.
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Hans Noel · January 15, 2014