Today is a numerically interesting day (being 11/12/13), but other than county clerks being inundated with folks wanting to get married today (one imagines cries of: "Honey, let's get married today, and I promise I'll never forget our anniversary!") it has no impact on national politics in any way. Neither does all the rampant speculation on the 2016 presidential race currently taking place among the punditocracy, but the difference is we're all supposed to pretend it does. So here goes -- my entry into rampant speculation about the 2016 race, and in particular what Chris Christie's chances are.
The proper response to such prognostication, at this point, is really: "It's way too early!" This is because it is, in fact, too early to predict much of anything that will be happening in 2016. It is, to borrow a favored phrase of Steve Jobs, insanely early for such speculation.
With caveats firmly in place, though, I was motivated to write after hearing all the chatter about what Chris Christie's chances might be. Most of this centered around the perceived "moderate" nature of Christie, which doesn't really square with the facts. Christie is truly conservative by just about any measure, but we are talking about perception here -- specifically what the perception of Christie will be among Republican primary voters, especially in early-voting states like Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina.
Being the recipient of the "moderate" label these days can be both a boost for a Republican politician, as well as a kiss of death. Perceived moderation is appealing to those Republicans who care about actually winning races nationwide, since they're aware of the difference between primary and general elections. But it can also be the kiss of death among the Tea Party purists. And it doesn't take much stepping out of line for "moderate" to equal "traitor to the cause" to these folks -- one photograph with President Obama is all it really takes, these days.
This has given rise to the talking point: "Christie is too moderate for the Republican base, especially in Iowa." A Christie campaign, this thinking goes, would be akin to the campaign Jon Huntsman ran in 2012 or the Rudy Giuliani campaign of 2008. What nobody mentions, though, is that a Christie campaign might actually turn out to be closer to the Mitt Romney campaign.
Since this thought runs so counter to the prevailing conventional wisdom, allow me to explain. When considering the 2008 field, the noticeable thing is how limited the choices were for what we now call Establishment Republicans, and how wide the field was for Tea Partiers. On the Establishment side there was only Romney and Huntsman, really. On the "let's go with someone new and exciting" side, the list was much longer: Ron Paul, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, and Herman Cain. Each of these had their moment in the sun, when they were dubbed the "Not Romney" candidate, and each fell after a brief moment of popularity. The only three who even came close to mounting a real challenge (winning delegates to the convention, in other words) were Rick Santorum, Ron Paul, and Newt Gingrich. But even that effectively split the Tea Party vote so much that Romney never really was in doubt as the party's nominee.
He had a slow start, though, and one which depended more than usual on geography. Romney and Santorum were neck-and-neck in Iowa (Santorum eventually won, but Romney got more good press out of it than Santorum while the final votes were tallied). New Hampshire is Romney territory, and he won handily (with Paul coming in a distant second). South Carolina went for Southerner Newt Gingrich rather decisively, but Romney won Florida in a big way and then in heavily-Mormon Nevada as well. These geographical patterns will not match what happens in 2016, it should be mentioned, so it's anyone's guess how the early voting will turn out.
But the early voting isn't as big a deciding factor as some still think it is. As the primary season raged on, Santorum emerged as the last "Not Romney" standing. But by the time he had knocked off all the other Tea Party challengers, he was so far behind in the delegate count that a Romney nomination was almost a foregone conclusion.
In 2016, it also appears that there will be multiple Tea Party candidates on the ballot, each with their own fan base. Rand Paul (son of Ron) will attempt an "I'm more sane than my Dad" campaign, likely winning many of the same votes Dad did. Marco Rubio will run a "Let's nominate a Latino!" campaign, but even this slice of the Republican electorate will be split with the entry of Ted Cruz. Scott Walker of Wisconsin may jump in with an anti-Union platform, and there will no doubt be other unique personalities for the hard right to choose from as well. The first debate stages are going to be pretty crowded, that's about the only safe bet at this point.
But none of these folks should really worry Christie, no matter what the voters in Iowa have to say about it. Because Christie will diligently be working to appear not as the "moderate" Republican candidate, but rather as the "mainstream" Republican candidate. And that's who normally wins Republican primaries, not the more-colorful flibbertigibbets running.
Christie's big worry will be who else will be competing with him for the mainstream title. And, unlike Cruz and Paul, it's harder to see which other possible contenders will actually jump into the race in 2016 (especially when it's so insanely early to even be talking about such things). Jeb Bush is a perennial favorite of some, of course. Florida can swing the whole election these days, so having an ex-governor is a strong point in his favor (as are his Latino-friendly credentials). Other, more staid (and boring) choices are often brought up, as well.
The real race among Christie and others striving for being mainstream is, of course, the money race. Getting donors to give you the millions necessary to adequately compete nationally is a big part of getting nominated, whether you approve of this reality or not. Christie is excellently situated to raise enough for a national campaign, as New Jersey is not that far from Wall Street -- Christie's already got a big built-in donor base, in other words.
Of course, 2016 won't be exactly like 2012. The mix of candidates will be important, as it always is. But Christie isn't as off-putting as many are now claiming, for two big reasons. The first is he has oodles of charisma. He's the type of candidate that people say: "Well, I don't agree with him, but I love the way he stands up for his positions," right before they pull the voting lever for him. Or to use a phrase Bill Clinton loves to utter: "In politics, strong and wrong beats weak and right every time." For the past four or five years, "strong" on the Republican side has equated to "spouting ever-crazier Tea Party rhetoric." Christie is going to change this. He's going to show a different way of being strong, one that is independent of his actual positions.
Because Mitt Romney has such a Caspar Milquetoast personality, he was forced to veer as sharply rightward during the primaries as he thought he could get away with. "I'm one of you -- really!" was his basic theme. By doing so, however, he appeared (at best) inauthentic. Christie will not make the same mistake. Christie's line is going to be: "Here's who I am, if you don't like it then don't vote for me, pal." By doing so he will stake out positions the Tea Partiers will attack him on, but he will retain his authenticity.
The second reason Christie has got a much better chance than a lot of people are now admitting is that there will be an enormous number of Republican primary voters who will be voting for the candidate who appears to have the best shot against Hillary Clinton. Assuming Hillary runs (a fairly safe bet, at this point), Republicans will be desperate for someone to take her on who actually has a chance of winning. And whichever candidate captures the "Not Mr. Tea Party" crown is going to have the most convincing argument.
Oh, sure, there will be an exciting and colorful race on the other side, too. The competition for being the "Tea Party Purist" candidate will indeed be fierce. One candidate or another will win some early states and appear to be the frontrunner -- that's a pretty safe bet, too. But the Establishment Republican wing is going to fight back as hard as they can. The Establishment money will coalesce around the mainstream candidate likely long before the Tea Party Purist candidate emerges, due in large part to the Tea Party tenet that the less political experience you have, the more qualified you are. Which leads all sorts of people to convince themselves (insanely, one might add) that they've got a real shot at becoming president (after, for instance, running a pizza empire). But the Establishment doesn't just have a big money advantage, they've also got the most convincing argument -- the one which will in all likelihood win the long primary season race. "He's got the best chance of beating Hillary" is going to become the de facto platform of whichever candidate wins the mainstream title. And Chris Christie has an excellent shot of doing just that. A lot of people will vote for him based not on agreeing with every position he has, but because of his personality and because of his perceived electability.
Of course, as I began, it is insanely early to even be having this conversation. A whole lot of things can happen in the next two years (when the 2016 race will have been joined in earnest). Events will intervene, unforeseen issues will arise, and it's impossible to say who will have a viable chance of either the Republican or the Democratic nomination at this point. Favorite candidates may drop dead of a heart attack, or otherwise be seriously sidelined by ways now unforeseen. New names we haven't even considered will jump into the race.
But the growing chorus of "Christie's too moderate for Iowa voters, therefore he will lose" is getting too loud (and inane) to ignore. Because of the "So what?" factor, really. Sure, Christie may lose a bunch of votes in early states. But that doesn't mean he can't win the nomination. If his only competition for the mainstream Republican position is someone with as weak a draw among actual voters as Jon Huntsman, then Christie could be the candidate the Republican primary electorate starts to see -- very early on -- as the one candidate with the best chance of actually winning the general election. This may infuriate many Tea Party voters, but these voters may have such a wide choice of Tea Party Purist candidates that their votes are too split to carry the day.
This is not an outlandish scenario. It happened in 2012, and it can indeed happen again in 2016. Romney was seen as most electable, and Christie may also reap the benefits of doing so. And anyone who tells you Christie is doomed before he begins because of the Tea Party is not really admitting this reality, at least in the insanely-early commentary so far.
-- Chris Weigant
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant