Chris Christie’s liberal stance on social issues are not going to doom his candidacy for the White House.
With the government shutdown successfully behind us, a lot of political reporters are moving back to covering the race for the White House in 2016. Despite what you might have heard from the expected whiners that it’s “too early” to start covering the campaign, the race to succeed Barack Obama is already well underway in a phase sometimes called “the invisible primary.” This is the period where important members of the party network like activists, and elected officials and major donors look at who would be best to represent their interests and be a good standard bearer. In fact, important Republicans and Democrats are picking sides as you read this.
If Christie wins reelection as New Jersey’s governor in two weeks, and the polls show him with a pretty big lead, he will cement his position as one of the Republican front runners for 2016. Christie’s high popularity and national standing are quite formidable compared to most of his competitors. In addition, he doesn’t have to worry about being associated with a massively unpopular Congress or having to worry about another campaign until after the 2016 elections.
Against these strengths a number of political reporters have been pointing out that Christie carries a lot of “baggage” in terms of his relatively liberal stances on social issues in the past. In particular, Christie’s stances on abortion and gay marriage have led some to suggest that Christie might have to skip the conservative and Evangelical Christian dominated Iowa Caucuses in 2015 if he wants a chance at winning. In fact, Slate’s David Weigel has gone so far as to announce that Christie’s recent decision to stop appealing a lawsuit legalizing same sex marriage in the Garden State means that, “The Republican primary vote[r]s who’ll meet the governor in 2015 will already assume he’s more moderate than they are.”
Chris Christie may be hampered by his past stance on social issues but arguing that these types of issues will prevent him from becoming the nominee, or even winning the Iowa Caucuses, is incorrect. The fact remains that all nominees have problems and weaknesses. Only a few months ago many journalists were looking at Ted Cruz as a presumptive front runner for 2016. Things clearly look different post-shutdown. And while it’s true that Christie may have taken a softer line on social issues over the past four years than other GOP contenders, these past stances will hardly automatically derail his run for the White House. They might even turn out not to matter that much.
In order to become a viable nominee for a major political party in the modern, that is, post 1972, nominations process candidates need to clear two major hurdles. First they need to meet the conventional qualifications for the office. Simply put they need to be a former or current Vice President, Senator or Governor or a figure of significant political status (like a cabinet secretary, major House leader or famous general). There’s no iron law here but it means that a Tim Pawlenty or Joe Biden should always be seen as a possible, though not necessarily likely, nominee. While a Michele Bachmann or Al Sharpton can safely be dismissed as nothing more than a side show, no matter how big the media buzz is around them. Secondly, the potential nominee needs to be within the mainstream of their party’s ideology. This doesn’t mean that a candidate has to agree with the majority of their party all of the time, but they can’t stray too far outside their party’s mainstream and still hope to win the nomination.
If a potential nominee fails to meet one of these hurdles they can sometimes still have periods of “front runner” status assigned by the media and even sometimes be ahead in the polls. Herman Cain in the 2012 cycle is a great example of this. But these sorts of nominees will ultimately fail to put together a winning coalition of party actors either because actors won’t trust them as a standard bearer, or won’t trust them to pursue those party actors’ interests. As political scientist Jonathan Bernstein has observed, Rand Paul won’t become the GOP’s 2016 nominee because:
“There are just too many public policy areas, and too many important groups within the party in those areas, for Paul to really be viable…There’s just no way…that the people within the Republican Party who care about foreign policy and national security would easily accept Rand Paul. It’s bad enough for Paul that the neoconservative faction would want nothing to do with him, but the realist Republicans, those associated, for example, with President George H.W. Bush, would be almost equally opposed to Paul’s anti-interventionist policies.”
Christie can get around his past stances as long as he is willing to adopt the current party line while running for President. Rand Paul calling for a foreign policy of isolationism means he can be vetoed by power groups inside the Republican Party. But as long as Christie is willing to change his stances and prove his loyalty over the next few years by saying “he evolved” on issues (like Obama and same sex marriage), he should be fine.
As long as Christie doesn’t lose next month or completely fail as Governor over the next two years he will clearly meet the convention qualification to be the GOP’s nominee. And as long as Christie doesn’t become an outspoken advocate of abortion rights or another Democratic position he is very much inside the socially moderate and pro-business “country club” tradition of the Republican Party. Christie could still lose the race for the nomination in 2016 — nothing is certain in politics — but it’s quite possible his stance on marriage and abortion could be as ignored by the GOP electorate in the 2016 cycle as Mitt Romney’s Pro-Choice stance in the 90’s were in 2012.
Photo by Josh Reynolds/AP