Shortly after winning reelection by a resounding margin Tuesday night, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie all but declared his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016. Not directly, but really, why would he talk so extensively about how the rest of the country is staring at New Jersey in wonder and admiration if not to set the stage for a presidential run? Combine this with the fact that Republicans lost in every other high-profile race, and Christie immediately vaulted to the top of the GOP shortlist for president.
Because Hillary Clinton is already the overwhelming favorite on the Democratic side for 2016, Christie’s ascension finally presents a viable head-to-head matchup. The usual caveats apply about how it’s silly to speculate on a presidential election three years ahead of time, but then again, such preliminary analyses can be useful — if only to retrospectively assess how on or off base we really were. Does Christie have a shot against Hillary? We stack up their strengths and weaknesses.
Challange: Primary Victory
If Clinton decides to run for president, it’s hard to imagine she’d lose the Democratic primary. She has massive, wide-reaching support within the party — as a centrist, she appeals to moderate Democrats, but the inroads she’s made at shattering the glass ceiling gives her strong appeal to young voters and progressives, too. She also has a campaign-in-waiting with massive funding behind it and relatively weak competition (with the possible exception of Elizabeth Warren, but she’s privately urged Clinton to run, so it’d be quite the betrayal for her to then run against her). If she wants the nomination, it’s basically hers for the taking.
Christie faces the exact opposite situation. If anything was made abundantly clear during the last nomination battle, it’s that the Republican base does not like moderates (remember when the audience at a GOP debate booed the gay Republican soldier?). Mitt Romney entered the Republican primary as a relative moderate, left it as a hard-right conservative culture warrior advocating for self-deportation, and still almost lost the nomination to Rick freaking Santorum.
Christie has supported gun control and a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. He believes in global warming and, as governor, enacted Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion. Those last two are particularly problematic, as the Republican Party’s primary ideological underpinnings at this point are opposition to the Affordable Care Act.
The attack ads write themselves — “As governor, Chris Christie forced Obamacare down New Jersey’s throat and palled around with Barack Obama,” coupled with images of the two hugging during Hurricane Sandy — and there’s no reason to believe the GOP base won’t eat them up hook, line, and sinker.
The only solution would be to lurch to the right and disown his past moderation, and Christie can ask President Romney how well that works.
An attack ad in-waiting.
Challenge: Appealing to Women
This seems like a gimme, but there’s more nuance to this than might be immediately obvious. Christie opposes abortion rights — he cut $7.5 million in funding for women’s health centers — and yet, in Tuesday’s election, women voted for Christie over his opponent, Barbara Buono, by 15 points. Whatever the reason for this, it’s undeniable that Christie has the ability to attract women voters, despite his anti-woman policies.
That being said, Democrats will highlight these policies in a way they haven’t yet if Christie is running for president, and Clinton will be the perfect one to deliver the message. And let’s be honest: The prospect of Christie’s nominal support with women overshadowing the possibility of a genuinely pro-woman candidate becoming the first female president is a joke. This charming anecdote about Christie screaming at a teacher so aggressively she was left “shaking” afterwards tells you all you need to know about how solid Christie’s support with women is.
Oh, and there’s also the simple fact that, in Tuesday’s exit polls, the same electorate that gave Christie another term as governor also said that they’d support Clinton over him for president by a seven-point margin.
Challenge: Building a Coalition
2012 proved that it’s no longer possible to win a national election simply by courting old white people, and whoever wins in 2016 will do so with significant support from young people and minorities. A July poll of Latinos showed Clinton with +56 favorability and Christie with +26 — both very strong showings. Also, 50 percent of respondents didn’t know who Christie was or had no opinion of him, so there’s room for him to grow his support amongst the fastest-growing voting bloc. In Tuesday’s election, 51 percent of New Jersey’s Latino voters went for Christie, so there’s no doubt that he’d be competitive in that department.
The youth vote is, similarly, a wash. Christie lost young voters 51-49 in Tuesday’s election, but then again, the youth vote went overwhelmingly for Obama over Clinton in 2008. The one thing that could give Clinton an edge is the possibility that Christie will be forced to run hard to right on immigration in the primary, and lose his Latino support in the process. This is exactly what happened to Romney in 2012, and it’s easy to imagine it happening in 2016.
Challenge: Health Care
In most hypothetical 2016 match-ups, the role of Obamacare seems pretty obvious — the Democratic nominee will be tied to it, the Republican nominee will be tied to opposing it, and the outcome will depend on how popular the law is. But a Christie-Clinton matchup presents an interesting inversion of that conventional wisdom. Even though Clinton served in the Obama administration, she was busy jet-setting around the world as Secretary of State when Obamacare was being passed, so it would be a strain to associate her with the law in anything more than a tangential sense. And although Christie is a Republican, he was also one of few Republican governors to support the law’s expansion of Medicaid.
What you have, then, is the bizarre situation where the Republican nominee may end up becoming more closely associated with Obamacare than the Democrat. I see this as a win-win for Clinton: If the law is unpopular in 2016, she can say she had little to do with it's implementation, while if it’s popular, Christie will either have to vocalize his support for it (and lose the Republican primary in the process) or speak out against a policy that’s broadly popular. By lacking any real connection to the law, Clinton is in a uniquely protected position, while Christie, by virtue of softly opposing yet also accepting parts of the law, is at a unique disadvantage.
Image: Dave Weigel