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What the Christie Craze Means

By David Paul Kuhn - October 4, 2011

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Republicans could commit a traditionally Democratic mistake in 2012. Today, the conservative heart is competing with the conservative head. In the end, Republicans may fall in line rather than fall in love. But Romney will have gotten the GOP to fall in line by moving toward the right's hard line.

That rightward shift tees up the eventual GOP nominee’s problem. Republicans could move too far right in the primary to win enough of the middle. Think of House Republicans’ near-unanimous passage of Paul Ryan’s budget plan to transform Medicare. The GOP contenders fell in line, including, after some wavering, Romney.

There are twice as many conservatives in America as liberals. Yet the emboldened conservative base can take Republicans only to roughly 40 percent of the electorate. And it’s the final 10 yards that counts in American politics.

It’s almost impossible to imagine a Republican running today as a “compassionate conservative,” as George W. Bush did in 2000. Republicans want a conservative’s conservative. The share of the GOP coalition calling themselves conservatives has increased from 62 to 72 percent between 2000 and 2011, according to Gallup. Yet nearly two-thirds of independents consider themselves moderates or liberals. Critically, the moderate voice is also louder in swing states. Hence their status as swing states.

Christie, like independents generally, is conservative fiscally and moderate socially. He could have reached the moderates Romney has distanced himself from. A more conservative nominee, like Perry, will struggle to court that middle. The conservative base hears Romney’s right talk – but questions whether he really believes in it. That’s where the Obama campaign will attack a Romney nominee (a la George W. Bush’s 2004 “flip-flopper” frame of John Kerry). Christie would have neutralized that attack.

We will never know whether the Christie leaving the primary would have been the same one who entered it. His moderation on immigration and gun control is almost surely a significant reason he ultimately said no. Christie could not have right-turned those stances and still banked on his “straight talk” brand. Yet Christie would have had a better chance at overcoming his moderation than any current GOP candidate.

It was Christie’s potential to win conservatives’ hearts and moderates’ minds that would have made him so formidable in a general election. As The Denver Post wrote in an ill-timed editorial today, urging Christie to run, he “hails from a blue state and has had to appeal to independents who would never vote for someone espousing a doctrinaire brand of conservative politics.”

The Republican gains in 2009 and 2010 in the Northeast will ebb, as the traditional political construct continues to reassert itself. This is why Christie would not only have had a tougher time winning the GOP primary than defeating Obama, but likely will have a tougher time winning re-election as governor than he would have had against Obama.

There is not enough data to prove Christie’s presidential potential. The chattering class was obsessed with him, but America was not. Between half and two-thirds of Americans have not heard of Christie or say they don’t know enough about him to form an opinion, according to Gallup.

One hint of Christie’s could-have-been appeal, from swing states to even blueish ones, came in an August Quinnipiac University Poll. A slight plurality of New Jersey voters -- due to a near-unanimous Democratic front -- ranked Obama a “better leader” than Christie. But few Democrats are going to consider any Republican against Obama. New Jersey independent voters notably said, by a 50-39 percent margin, that Christie was the “better leader” than Obama. State independents approve of Christie by roughly the same margin. This strength has critically endured despite some of the bitterest state policy battles in the nation.

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David Paul Kuhn is a writer who lives in New York City. His novel, “What Makes It Worthy,” will be published in February 2015.

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