Nowadays, nothing looks good for the Republicans. Demographic and generational change is inexorably narrowing the GOP’s traditional path to victory, at a time when the party hasn’t shown any ability to broaden its appeal. The Republicans can’t take advantage of opportunities, either. Congressional Republicans have, somehow, managed to upstage an unpopular president presiding over mediocre economic growth and website “glitches.” Later today, Terry McAuliffe will likely be elected governor of a state. The once vaunted Republican "rebrand" only endures as an elite fantasy, consigned to the blogs and columns of a handful of conservative thinkers who have far less influence over the conservative grassroots than conversations along the Acela-corridor.
And yet hope is not lost for Republicans. Congressional Republicans were never going to be the agents of the Republican “rebrand.” It was always about 2016: The one moment when Republicans could nominate a candidate with a new message, and a big enough platform to change, suppress, or even Sister Souljah the party’s most extreme voices. And on that front, the last few months have gone deceptively well for Republicans. Ted Cruz unintentionally tried to disqualify himself in a manner that I would have only guessed was possible for a candidate intentionally trying to disqualify themself. Marco Rubio, who entered the year as the candidate most likely to lull Republicans into walking the plank, hasn’t done himself any favors, either. With rivals faltering, Chris Christie momentarily stands alone. Tonight, he will win reelection by such a wide margin that even the party’s most conservative forces will be tempted to give him another look. But it's highly unclear whether he can win the nomination, or whether anyone can repeat his success.
Chris Christie is cruising to reelection in a deep blue state. The polls differ on the margin, but Christie holds a staggering 23 point lead in the new and improved HuffPost Pollster Model. If Christie approaches that margin, it will be the best showing by a Republican in the Garden State since 1985. And he’s done it without compromising on the core elements of the Republican platform. Despite his reputation for moderation, Christie checks the crucial boxes of the religious and business wings of the Republican Party. He’s pro-life and he’s against gay marriage. He has solid credentials opposing taxes and attacking unions, which will eventually compliment a reformist, conservative domestic policy agenda.
To be fair, the massive net-41 point gap between Romney and Christie’s performance isn’t simply the result of flipping on a few wedge issues. Christie isn't a federal candidate; there's a long history of Republican governors in blue states. Christie’s also an incumbent who was elected in favorable conditions, who’s now running against a challenger—Barbara Buono—whose name I occasionally forget. It's an open question whether Christie from four years ago could win an open seat in New Jersey today. And it would be malpractice to forget Hurricane Sandy, the real turning point in the race. Before the storm, Christie’s approval ratings were in the low-to-mid fifties—low enough that he was potentially vulnerable in a very blue state. At the very least, he wasn’t on track to win by 23 points. So Christie isn’t a blueprint for perpetual Republican dominance: It would be extremely misguided to assume that conservative Republicans can simply jettison guns and immigration and routinely win blue states.
But that doesn’t justify discounting Christie, either. After all, Republicans don’t need to win New Jersey to win the presidency. They mainly need to hold down Democratic margins in areas that aren’t too different from New Jersey, like the well-educated and diverse suburbs around Philadelphia, Washington, Columbus, and Denver. The sheer margin by which Christie is surpassing what’s necessary is consistent with the possibility that even modest changes would be enough for a sufficient number of moderate voters to reconsider a Republican candidate.
There’s a historical precedent: Bill Clinton. He was ostensibly a “New Democrat,” even though he was pro-choice, supported higher taxes, a universal health care system, gun control, and expanded rights for gays in the military. Rather than abandon core elements of the Democratic agenda, Clinton softened the edges on unreformed welfare, crime, middle class taxes, and said abortion should be “rare,” even if it should remain legal.
Today’s “New Republican” might not look very different from Chris Christie. He or she would preserve the core elements of the Republican agenda, but might retreat on a few symbolic but ultimately incidental issues—like immigration reform. He or she would stress pragmatism, the ability to work with both parties, and routinely distinguish him or herself from the party’s extremists. After losing the popular vote in 5 of the last 6 presidential elections, Republicans should be quite familiar with the effectiveness of this tactic.
This view might not be popular with a few of my numbers-based friends, who often downplay the significance of campaigns and candidates in favor of the economic fundamentals. To be sure, economic growth explains much of the variation in the outcome of presidential elections. But some analysts and commentators, including Ezra Klein, take an overly deterministic view that wrongly suggests “nothing matters in elections.” Even a quick glance at the relationship between economic growth and presidential elections reveals plenty of variation, perhaps as much as 5 points on either side of the best fit line, where campaigns, ideology, demographics, and candidates can play a role. Not even the political scientists mean to suggest that the economy is everything. And the fact is that we’re in an era of close presidential elections. Whether it’s because of persistently mediocre economic growth or polarization is beside the point: A couple of points are extremely important.
Of course, Christie’s electability comes at a price in the primary. He’s certainly one of the front-runners. Perhaps even “the” front-runner. It’s impossible to discount his name recognition, political talent, and money. And if a middling, mediocre, moderate, Massachusetts Mormon who committed heresy on abortion and the individual mandate can win the 2012 Republican nomination, then surely a more popular Chris Christie could win in 2016. Altogether, it’s not hard to imagine Christie winning the nomination.
Yet Christie might just be from a state that’s a notch too liberal and a notch too northeastern. It’s unclear how Christie’s Jersey Shore demeanor and temperament will play in Iowa or New Hampshire. His stance on gun control—dictated by a state with one of the lowest rates of gun ownership in the country—will be a real problem, especially since relative moderation and secularism already puts him at a serious disadvantage in the South and across the rural West and Midwest. And although the Republicans have a history of nominating relatively moderate, establishment-friendly Republicans, there is a long list of reasons to question whether that history augurs a Christie win in 2016. The party may decide, but the party has changed.
What should scare Republicans is the possibility that Christie is the only candidate who can pull off his own success. Christie is an exceptional candidate, and it wasn’t even inevitable that Christie would become Christie—it took quite a bit of luck, and even some perverse luck in the form of Hurricane Sandy. It’s unclear whether any other Republican can advance through the primaries while retaining enough credibility to tack back to the center and distinguish themselves from the party in the general election. If not, the compounding effects of demographic change, a sour GOP brand, and a conservative Republican nominee might put the GOP at a real disadvantage. Fortunately for electability-minded Republicans, the last few months have brought deceptively good news.