Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock the last few weeks, you’ve undoubtedly endured a fair amount of breathless media coverage about Chris Christie’s landslide win in New Jersey and how his “moderate” approach could save the GOP. I am skeptical.
The first big problem with this claim is that Christie is not a solution to the GOP’s ongoing demographic dilemma. The contours of this dilemma are well-known, particularly the rise of minorities and the Millennial generation and the decline in conservative white working class voters. Just the ongoing decline of the white working class and the rise of minorities should, all else equal, increase Democrats’ margin in 2016 by almost 2 percentage points over 2012. Put another way, if they reran the 2012 election with the probable 2016 electorate, Obama would win by 6 points, not 4.
Christie can’t do anything directly about this change in the mix of voters, but the theory seems to be that he will be able to get a significantly larger share of the minority vote due to his personal appeal to minority voters. If he did, that could negate the benefit Democrats would normally enjoy from ongoing demographic change.
But how plausible is this? It is true that, in the afterglow of his landslide re-election in New Jersey he has polled relatively well among Hispanics in the two national polls that have tested Christie-Hillary Clinton matchups, losing this group by an average of around 10 points, very good for a Republican in recent years. And it is also true that in his reelection victory in New Jersey, he actually carried the Latino vote by 51-45, according to the New Jersey exit poll. It is the latter data point in particular that has inspired most of the heavy breathing about Christie’s minority appeal.
However, on close scrutiny, Christie’s ability to carry this group in a very easy re-election victory is not particularly impressive, and certainly not indicative of future success with Latino voters. A deeper look at the same exit poll that showed Christie carrying New Jersey Hispanics by 6 points should make this plain.
Another question on the poll asked New Jersey voters whom they would support for President in 2016 if the choices were Chris Christie and Hillary Clinton. New Jersey voters favored Clinton by 4 points, but New Jersey Latinos favored her by 24 points — a 30 point swing against Christie when compared to their vote for governor. It seems that the Latino voters who know Christie best are not so enthusiastic about him as a potential president.
What about Hispanics in the rest of the country? Would increased exposure to Christie and what he stands for make these voters fonder of him? The reverse is far more likely. Given his record in New Jersey, he is likely to run for President, if he does, on a “severely” conservative program of cutting taxes and government and taking on organized labor. That puts him on a collision course with America’s Hispanics who are probably the most pro-government constituency in the country.
But hasn’t Christie said some nice-ish things on immigration? Won’t that endear him to Hispanics? Leaving aside the fact that immigration is hardly the only issue Latinos vote on, it is true that several years ago he supported both a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrant and in-state tuition rates for undocumented students. However, post-election, when asked by George Stephanopoulos on ABC’s This Week whether these were in fact his positions on immigration, he declined to defend them and tried as fast as he could to change the subject. We’ve probably seen the last of Christie’s relatively moderate position on immigration.
This brings us to Christie’s second big problem. No matter how moderate his positions may be on certain issues — and there are only a few; as Isaac Chotiner recently noted, he is fundamentally quite conservative — he is unlikely to retain these positions through the Republican primary process. If he wants to win, that is.
This can be seen from someterrific data assembled by Alan Abramowitz in a recent post on Sabato’s Crystal Ball. For starters, he shows data from the 2012 National Election Study demonstrating just how different Tea Party Republicans are from not just the overall electorate but even from other Republicans. Note especially the huge gaps on social and economic issues.
But here’s the killer chart. This looks at Tea Party supporters (and strong supporters) as a share of Republicans, again using NES data. As the charts shows, Tea Party supporters are 52 percent of all Republicans, 57 percent of general election voters, 64 percent of primary voters (Christie strategists take note!), 76 percent of rally attendees and a remarkable 80 percent of donors. Wow:
That’s the gauntlet Christie has to run to get the nomination. Not much will be left of Christie the moderate if and when he gets to the other side. And not much will be left of Christie, the savior of the GOP, either.