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Christie's Iowa paradox

Governor Chris Christie could face much opposition from conservative voters in Iowa if he decides to run in 2016.
Governor Chris Christie could face much opposition from conservative voters in Iowa if he decides to run in 2016.

In the wake of his reelection victory this past November where he increased his margin of victory from four years earlier, Governor Chris Christie saw the speculation around a potential 2016 presidential candidacy only increase.

His name was mentioned in 2012 for both president and vice president for the GOP before trouncing any such speculation. He was a main speaker at the Republican National Convention and has risen to be the top leader of the Republican Governors Association. However, almost like hitting traffic on the Garden State Parkway or New Jersey Turnpike; his potential presidential aspiration hit a major snag with the continued developments surrounding lanes closing on the George Washington Bridge last September that have lingered throughout this year.

2016 is still a year and a half away and voters have shown a tendency to have a short-term memory at times with controversial stories linked to candidates. That could mean a different picture for Christie a year from now. But at the hear of any candidacy will be the type of field that decides to run and prospects looking at the primary and caucus schedule and map. Going deeper; if Christie were to run, he would have to look at the one state that starts the action every four years in particular. For any candidate for president, they must look to Iowa.

While Iowa is far from being the biggest state, it's caucus voters have had a major influence for the field of candidates when it comes to the rest of the primaries and caucuses. Winning Iowa is an important first step for any candidate's presidential dreams; but losing it should not be viewed as an ultimate end to a candidacy at the same time. If one takes the primaries and caucuses as a marathon and not a sprint or they have deep pockets from donors and/or themselves; they can take a win and expand their prospects or take a loss and retool their campaign.

Christie could certainly pave a path for New Hampshire and on whether he were to win or lose if he does choose to run.

While Christie would not be called a liberal, he has far from been embraced by conservatives either. Iowa might be a swing state in the general election, but those who partake in the GOP caucuses lean more to the right of the political spectrum than the center. Candidates like former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum have succeeded in the state the last two presidential cycles largely because of their approach on social issues and appeal to conservatives.

Poll after poll has typically shown Christie at or near the top of the field of likely candidates. However, when conservative voters especially those in Iowa are asked who they prefer; Christie usually places somewhere in the middle or bottom of the field of likely candidates. What does all that mean? It presents an Iowa dilemma for the potential presidential candidate.

Some like Craig Robinson, founder of the conservative blog The Iowa Republican, are seeking more information about the type of candidate and more importantly the type of president Christie would be before he will get their support as any type of frontrunner.

For Robinson,

Every political move that Christie made in 2013 made a lot of sense for a Republican governor trying to get re-elected in a blue state like New Jersey, but those things didn't necessarily help him with attracting support among conservative voters who he will need to win over to get the Republican presidential nomination. While everything he did in 2013 helped him win over independents, females, and other voting blocs, many of his actions may have hurt his presidential ambitions.

He would add,

Christie has not taken a strong, conservative stand on several issues, including gun control, immigration and gay marriage. Those might be three insignificant issues in a New Jersey gubernatorial campaign, but they are major issues in a presidential primary, and not just in Iowa either. The national media coverage of Christie's re-election win seems to suggest that the avoidance of divisive issues is what makes him the most electable Republican for the 2016 presidential race.

While Robinson speaks to issues that ignite base voters on the Republican side and many of the type of voters who are Iowa caucus voters, running in New Jersey is a different animal than running in Iowa. That is especially the case if you are a Republican. While Christie may have not produced consistent high vitriol on issues like the three mentioned by Robinson; he has stalled progress on major gun control legislation, been far from a supporter of a large framework for immigration reform, and denied legislation on same sex marriage multiple times before a judge's decision forced his hand to allow same sex marriage in the state. One can take other issues from cuts to education and social programs as well as pension cuts and freezes to preventing any type of tax increases that could assist the less well-off in the state and an economy that has trailed expectations while asking millionaires to pay a little more. And one could also find a collection of comments directed negatively towards President Barack Obama and his policies by Christie.

Chris Christie might not be Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) but he is not quite the liberal or moderate that Iowa conservatives probably think he is.

Another leading conservative voice in the state, Bob Vander Plaats, has also challenged Christie's willingness to bend on issues or make decisions more fitting if he was running as a Democrat.

Robinson, Vander Plaats, and others are likely to not only take aim at Christie but each name that is mentioned as a potential GOP presidential candidate. Each will likely face multiple questions as well as being put to an ideology test.

As mentioned, Iowa is important as the first contest in the presidential primary/caucus process every four years and could simplify a field of hopefuls. Candidates like Huckabee or Santorum have not converted an Iowa caucus win to their party's nomination so there is definitely life after an Iowa loss for candidates.

The impact of Iowa truly is open-ended as everyone wants to win the caucus there, but no one needs it to lock up a nomination per say.

Christie's prospects in a state like Iowa have led some like Princeton University political science professor Julian Zelizer to weigh in on Christie's chance of winning the nomination with or without an Iowa victory.

For Zelizer,

I think he can survive without Iowa. I think his whole campaign will be based on being the candidate who is not on the far right. Iowa might actually help him because if the conservatives take him on there it might actually set him up for some of the bigger primaries. Christie's appeal will be as the candidate who stands the best chance of beating Hillary Clinton in 2016 and who has a model for rebuilding the Republican Party. He'll be able to say to primary voters, I'm the one who attracted the Hispanic vote and the women's vote in New Jersey. He'll still say he's a conservative. He won't run as a centrist, but he'll be able to say I'm the one with the best chance to win, so vote for me and ignore all of the noise.

While University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato would voice,

This is one of the most important decisions Christie has to make. Should he contest Iowa, or wait for New Hampshire? It depends on how many conservatives are running. If there are three or four, and Christie has a fairly clear 'moderate' field, he can win Iowa. But if one conservative clearly takes off, Christie will have a hard time winning Iowa--he needs a very split field. Why not start in New Hampshire, a state whose GOP electorate would be much friendlier to him? Chris Christie is not Rudy Giuliani.

The Giuliani reference points to the former New York City mayor's choice to bypass the first few primaries and caucuses in 2008 to focus on Florida. The strategy was geared at knowing he had no chance in states like Iowa or South Carolina but passing over New Hampshire and waiting nearly a month into the primary cycle to seriously challenge the field in a race backfired hugely in his face as he became a footnote in the race quickly after. Christie seems to have a larger appeal among Republican voters than Giuilani and would likely not make the same strategical error in assessing his path to the party's nomination by not competing in the first few primaries and caucuses regardless of what his prospects of winning might be viewed as.

Christie will likely struggle for the hearts and souls of conservative voters no matter what the field looks like but especially if certain candidates like Cruz or Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) are also running.

Not all Republican voters in Iowa are skeptical on Christie and his stances as governor. Bruce Rastetter was part of a group of Republicans from the Hawkeye State who petitioned Christie to make a run in 2012 because of the type of appeal he could have with different wings of the GOP.

For Rastetter,

I think whether it's Iowans or Republicans anywhere around the country, they understand the importance of winning. Christie's ability to reach out to key demographic groups - Hispanics and women - is critical to winning nationally.

He would also point to it being too early for Christie or anyone to have an Iowa problem. The state as much as the race itself is wide open.

Another supporter of a Christie run in 2012, former Iowa state Senator James Kersten, would add;

I'm very interested in supporting him (Christie) if he decides to do it. Getting a huge victory (in New Jersey) reinforces the fact that he can bring people together.

Another element that could be in play for Christie is his relationship with Iowa Republican Governor Terry Branstad. Christie works with Branstad with the RGA and Christie was a major supporter of Branstad in 2010 when was elected to another term as governor after a hiatus from the office. Branstad was challenged by Vander Plaats in a primary that placed Branstad as more moderate choice in the race and someone better fit for a general election against a vulnerable incumbent. Christie would certainly utilize Branstad to his advantage in the state if he chooses to run.

While President George W. Bush won the Iowa caucus in 2000, the two previous Republican presidents did not carry Iowa. President George H.W. Bush in 1988 and President Ronald Reagan in 1980 fell short of winning the Iowa caucus yet still won their party's nomination and ultimately the general election and presidency.

Democrats have had a better success rate with winning Iowa as well as their party's nomination. President Barack Obama in 2008, Secretary of State John Kerry in 2004, and Al Gore in 2000 all won Iowa as well as their party's nomination. While President Bill Clinton did not win Iowa in 1992, he would go on to to win his party's nomination and the presidency.

Despite what seems like a winnable path for every potential candidate including Christie in 2016 to White House without winning the Iowa caucus, individuals like Robinson will continue to highlight the importance of Iowa.

As Robinson would express,

Governor Christie might want to bring some antacids with him when he comes to Iowa as there are many voters who wonder who this guy from New Jersey is and what he stands for, what he's willing to fight for, and what he's willing to do when the chips are down.

Thus, it is still a year and a half away and a lot can change. But for Christie, if he wants to win his party's nomination he will at least have to take Iowa seriously enough and not ignore those voters. Losing Iowa would not end any type of candidacy at the same time. A loss might actually aide his candidacy among the GOP as a whole and Independent voters who are crucial in a general race. For now, Christie must continue to assess where he stands among GOP voters outside of the Garden State. Especially in those early voting states like New Hampshire and Iowa. How far is he willing to bend to appease caucus voters? That is something still to be determined as he examines the paradox that is Iowa.

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