With an impressive re-election victory in hand, all eyes will soon turn towards New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s next move. As Christie considers the viability of a presidential bid, and political pundits begin to trumpet his prospects, it is important to consider how candidates formed in a similar mold have fared in pursuit of the Republican presidential nomination.
New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani may be the clearest precursor to Governor Christie in contemporary political history. Both men are tough-talking, Northeastern executives who served as U.S. Attorney before storming traditionally Democratic strongholds with bold reformist agendas. Both are well-liked, media-friendly personalities, elected by a broad-based coalition of supporters. Both cemented their reputations as leaders by rising to the occasion in a time of crisis – Giuliani after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and Christie after the devastation of Hurricane Sandy.
And neither has been afraid to anger the Republican base. Despite opposition from conservative activists in New York, Giuliani never wavered in his support for his unorthodox positions on issues such as gun control and abortion. Likewise, Christie is well-known among political observers for his independent-minded approach to governance. Christie signed stricter gun control measures into law in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary shootings, recently changed his position to support for in-state tuition for illegal aliens, and earlier last month asked New Jersey’s Attorney General not to appeal a court ruling which made same-sex marriage legal in the state. Of particular note for Republican activists, Christie has refused to apologize for his now infamous embrace of President Obama on the eve of his re-election.
With such an impressive margin of victory in a deep blue state, Republican strategists may have sets their sights on Christie as the party’s standard-bearer in 2016. Even before his victory on Tuesday evening, one Republican strategist remarked that Christie “is in the [number] one slot [for the Republican nomination] now and forevermore…”
Should Christie enter the 2016 Republican nomination race as the frontrunner, it is important to recall that Giuliani was in a similar position when he declared his candidacy; buoyed by name recognition and his national reputation.
But when the votes came in, America’s Mayor turned in a dismal showing, frequently placing near the bottom of the pack in early contests and unable to make a comeback in the big state primaries. Mayor Giuliani touted fundraising support, big-name endorsements, and professional infrastructure. Yet he failed to connect with Republican primary voters. What happened?
Unlike nominees McCain and Romney, Giuliani failed to be proactive about issues important to Republican primary voters. From his tumultuous personal life to his centrist record on issues like abortion, immigration, and gun rights, Giuliani never made an authentic effort to convince his party that he ought to be its standard-bearer. To avoid a similar fate, Christie might be well-advised to tackle the issues that have made conservatives suspicious of his governing style, as well as to preemptively address the potential scandals which lay in wait – something Giuliani did not find necessary.
Although Christie has declared himself to be pro-life, he has been vocal about his unwillingness to “force that down people’s throats,” and was pro-choice until the late 1990s. He believes in man-made global warming and supports comprehensive immigration reform. He favors President Obama’s education initiatives, and prefers marriage to be defined at the state level. And while John McCain shares many of these positions, the 2008 nominating cycle lacked the conservative star power displayed by the likes of Senator Rand Paul and Senator Ted Cruz. Iowa and South Carolina voters, who opted for conservative candidates in 2012, are unlikely to warm up to Christie.
The conventional wisdom suggests that, like John McCain and Mitt Romney, Chris Christie must play to win in New Hampshire, a state Giuliani allowed to slip away. In this regard, Christie might have an advantage over Giuliani, given Christie’s ease with the media and willingness to engage the public – in contrast to the often aloof New York mayor. But ultimately, he is going to have to sell his Northeastern conservatism to a red state crowd in order to win the nomination, as moderate-friendly Florida has moved its primary back to March.
One necessary strategy will be for Christie to reassure conservatives that he truly is pro-life, something Giuliani never did. Additionally, Christie, a fiscal conservative who believes in tackling the country’s mounting debt and unsustainable obligations, should make fiscal issues the centerpiece of his campaign during primary season. But in so doing, Christie should be careful not lose the swaths of struggling middle-income swing voters who abandoned Governor Romney over his now-infamous ’47 percent’ comment.
Instead, Christie might take a populist tack and argue that the collusion of big government and Wall Street has prevented free market capitalism from creating economic growth. This sort of maneuver would give Christie a shot at bringing many middle class independents back into the Republican fold, while simultaneously holding the GOP’s conservative base.
To be sure, it is far too early in the process to come to any definitive conclusions regarding the chances of Governor Christie securing the Republican nomination. And it is certainly too early to declare him “The Republican Bill Clinton” in terms of potential for electoral success – as the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza has.
In the end, if Christie takes careful steps to avoid the pitfalls that doomed Giuliani, he can successfully secure the Republican nomination like other moderate candidates before him. However, in a time where the conservative grassroots of the party are highly disinclined to moderate their demands, and more conservative alternatives such as Senators Rand Paul & Cruz wait in the wings, there is little room for error.