A 2016 Republican Presidential victory will hinge on the GOP’s ability to do one of two things: win over a sufficient amount of independents or facilitate a huge turnout among the party base on Election Day.
As of now, however, frontrunners Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are a longshot for the former and far from a sure thing when it comes to the latter. They are divisive enough within their own party—the more moderate wider electorate is unlikely to come around by November. Or ever for that matter.
But one candidate emerging from the shadows just might be able to pull off one of the aforementioned voter turnout scenarios: New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. After your laughter subsides, and before you click the “back” button on your browser, hear me out.
First of all, Christie has somehow successfully managed to cultivate the simultaneous reputations of hawk and moderate. Besides being a two-term Republican governor in one of the country’s bluest states, his famous embrace of Obama in the wake of Hurricane Sandy was an olive branch seen by many (myself included) as guaranteeing the president’s reelection.
Yet Christie has reemerged as one of the administration’s fiercest critics, calling President Obama “a joke” when it came to Syrian refugees and labeling the president’s politicization of mass shootings as “obscene.”
These dual identities could prove to be an enormous political advantage should Christie somehow become the nominee. For example, his cozying up to Obama in 2012 could serve as a powerful rebuke to the Democratic narrative of a Republican Party bent primarily on obstruction. This narrative, which came to fore during Boehner’s speakership in which Congress set records for fewest numbers of laws and bills passed, has played well with voters despite the obvious fact more government is rarely good government.
But for Christie, this talking point won’t stick. That once politically poisonous hug could now serve as the very ammunition he needs to separate himself from his more partisan colleagues while simultaneously working to fulfill their agenda.
Whereas Trump and Cruz represent a more radical, anti-establishment wave of conservatism, Christie’s moderation, perceived or genuine, could prove critical in securing at least some of the much-coveted millennial vote, a group that seems to prefer personality over political party and a demographic that will become even more important beyond 2016—by 2020 millennials will represent nearly 40 percent of the voting population.
For Trump this demographic is all but a lost cause. A recent poll by Monmouth College put his favorable rating among young people at an abysmal 17.5 percent, while nearly half view him unfavorably. And while Cruz is going to great efforts to appeal to this critical age group, millennials are unlikely to identify with a far-right evangelical.
These attitudes will undoubtedly change as millennials age, but for now they are carved in stone. For Cruz and Trump this means relying on the support of older voters to ensure victory, and if 2008 and 2012 taught us anything, it’s that forsaking younger voters while counting on older ones is a recipe for ballot box disaster.
Perhaps more impressive than Christie’s political nuance, however, is his ability to rise above the salacious, scandalous nature of New Jersey politics.
While accusations abound (did I mention he was governor of New Jersey), he has proven difficult to snare ethically. Aside from the Bridgegate circus, in which he was cleared of wrongdoing, he has so far managed to walk the line. And if, as most suspect, the Democrat nominee is indeed Hillary, Christie may well be able to claim the moral high ground. Trump’s past business dealings would greatly endanger his case while Cruz has never held an executive position and could well face challenges related to his nation of birth which, while likely to prove futile, will almost certainly create an unwanted distraction.
But perhaps Christie’s greatest advantage over the rest of the GOP field is his verifiable national security experience in an age of ISIS-fueled paranoia. In fact, a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll shows that national security is now a top concern for American voters. And as he so often reminds us, Christie served as New Jersey’s federal prosecutor following the attacks on September 11, and he frequently gathers applause by pulling the “you don’t know what it takes” card against his primary opponents when issues of surveillance and law enforcement arise.
There are plenty of other plusses, too, and no shortage of minuses. Christie is media savvy — his speech on addiction was the type of viral success candidates dream of. Yet his popularity at home is at its lowest point ever and New Jersey’s post-recession economy is lagging behind that of its neighbors.
But he resides in a territory that might be unbeatable in the coming election, straddling the line between hawk and moderate, radical and establishment; sufficiently seasoned yet not afraid to question the status quo; a candidate whom nearly every one can relate to on some level.
No one is suggesting that conservatives abandon their principles — Rand Paul fans will certainly take issue with Christie’s ideas on government surveillance. And as Trump’s singular identity on a few core issues has demonstrated, this potential for broad appeal could prove more curse than blessing in today’s hyperpartisan political landscape.
But rest assured that if, or rather when she wins, Hillary Clinton will be a formidable candidate. She’s widely seen as somewhat appealing to millennials, has a huge fan base, and is a media darling. Christie isn’t perfect, but he’s principled enough for most and he’s not scared of anyone.
If anyone is capable of either winning enough independents or turning out the party base, it’s Christie. In fact, he may be the only person in the race that can do both.