The calendar won't turn to 2016 for another 715 days. But, people like us are already handicapping what the race might look like -- and even declaring New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie as the front-runner for the Republican nomination despite his recent traffic troubles.
Charlie Cook, a preeminent political handicapper and the man who gave me my first job in Washington, took issue with the idea that Christie -- either pre or post Bridge-gate -- should be described as the front-runner in the race. Here's a piece of Charlie's take (the whole thing is worth reading):
Christie, the front-runner? Again — really? Christie indeed sat at the top of some of the polls that lay out a long laundry list of every imaginable contender (as well as some who are harder to imagine), but does that make him the front-runner? I think not.
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.
Charlie has a good point. In fact, the undertold story of bridge-gate is how Christie is being squeezed from the left (Democrats who loathe/fear him) and the right (conservatives who still blame him for President Obama's reelection victory in 2012). While Christie's rise to national prominence was fueled by tea party support, that energy was built on Christie's tone, not his policies. (Christie is rightly placed on the ideological spectrum to the right of Rudy Giuliani but to the left of Ted Cruz.) The Obama incident -- Christie greeted the president warmly during a visit to New Jersey in the wake of Hurricane Sandy and praised his work to help the state's residents -- triggered a lessening of tea party/conservative enthusiasm toward Christie that has lingered even as the governor was ringing up a historic election victory last November.
"Prior to this bridge stuff, Christie had about a 10 percent chance at the nomination," said one GOP consultant aligned with another candidate eyeing the 2016 race. "No more than that. It’s just a fact. Primary voters do not like him. And I’m talking about much higher levels of 'do not like' than Mitt [Romney] ever faced."
That said, let me play a bit of the devil's advocate here. Charlie is absolutely right that Bachmann, Cain, Santorum, Perry, Newt and even (gag) Donald Trump had their moments in the sun during the 2012 GOP race -- thanks to a desire from some conservatives to be with someone (anyone) other than Romney. But, none of those people won the nomination or, really, came all that close. (Santorum was the runner-up to Romney, but was there ever a point where you thought the former Pennsylvania senator would wind up as the GOP standard-bearer?) Ditto 2008 when conservative energy was most definitely not behind John McCain and yet he wound up as the party's nominee. In fact, with the exception of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and, to some extent, George W. Bush in 2000, the conservatives' top choice has rarely won the nomination in recent years.
Context, of course, matters. The 2012 Republican field was notoriously weak -- particularly once Texas Gov. Rick Perry, hailed as the conservative savior, proved something well short of that. There were plenty of conservatives in the field -- see the list above -- but none of them were able to cross the threshold of credibility that would allow them to coalesce a large portion of the GOP base behind them.
That field frailty almost certainly won't be the case in 2016. Among the candidates likely to cast themselves as credible conservatives: Scott Walker, Bobby Jindal and Marco Rubio. If Jeb Bush decides to run, he cuts to the front of that credible conservative line. So, in theory, Christie would be exposed as insufficiently conservative by this group in a way that Romney never was.
But, Christie isn't Romney, either. He doesn't have the flip flops on things like gay marriage and abortion that made conservatives question the former Massachusetts governor's commitment to their cause. Christie is a Catholic, not a Mormon. And he is a markedly better communicator than Romney ever was. And although the 2016 field is without doubt stronger than the 2012 edition, none of the "credible conservatives" are without potential weaknesses in the eyes of conservatives. Take Rubio and Bush, for example, both of whom have voiced support for immigration reform that puts them far to the left of where Romney was in 2012 (self deportation!) and where the GOP base is at the moment.
Our case for Christie as front-runner -- or, maybe, more accurately first among almost-equals -- is built around the idea that there is no perfect/electable conservative in the race and that Christie has a decent chance of beating out Jindal, Rubio and Walker in the battle to be the establishment candidate. (There is a whole other primary -- where Rand Paul is the front-runner -- that will pick the outsider candidate to battle the establishment pick.) Of that quartet of credible establishment conservatives, Christie is the one who, at first glance, could most easily put together the tens (and probably hundreds) of millions of dollars needed to run real operations in a series of states in short order.
Christie has been -- and remains -- the pick of the Wall Street/business crowd (Home Depot founder Ken Langone is hosting an event for him this weekend in Florida), and has spent his entire governorship building relationships with that powerful New York money crowd. (Another fight, with an as-yet-to-be-determined winner, is for the Texas GOP money set.) Money isn't everything in the race. (Right, President Giuliani?) But, the way that Romney and, ultimately, McCain won the 2012 and 2008 nominations, respectively, was to bleed dry their underfunded challengers. Being the fundraising front-runner allows you the chance to slip and recover -- something candidates with less money simply can't do.
Christie also would seem to have the most obvious early win of those four candidates. (As Giuliani's doomed 2008 bid proved, you have to win one of the first three states -- Iowa, New Hampshire or South Carolina -- to realistically have a chance at the nomination.) None of the four is a natural fit for the social conservatives of Iowa, but Christie's fiscal conservatism and brashness would seem to be a perfect fit for the New Hampshire primary. (Christie, tonally, reminds us of McCain, who won the New Hampshire primaries in each of his two presidential bids.)
Using the "money + a likely (possible?) early state win = good" equation, Christie comes out ahead of the other establishment types he is going to be competing with. Is it a wide edge? No way. Could questions about his true conservative credentials or worries about his style (is he brash or a bully?) doom him? Absolutely. But he won't be running against the perfect GOP candidate. He'll be running against a bunch of candidates who have their own sets of issues to overcome. And given that reality, there's no reason to think he isn't in the top tier or even at the top of that top tier at this moment in time.
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