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Chris Christie, JV Debater, Could Thrive In Primary Chaos

What if a mainstream Republican wins neither Iowa nor New Hampshire? I’m not talking about a Donald Trump sweep. I’m talking about two factional candidates within the party trading victories: A social conservative (Ben Carson, say) wins Iowa, and a moderate (Chris Christie) wins New Hampshire. That eventuality seems more likely than usual in 2016 because so many candidates are running, and the party establishment can’t seem to “decide” which candidate to back. To be clear, such a scenario isn’t likely, but it’s at least possible. And it could mean chaos.

That chaos could result in a very conservative nominee, like Ted Cruz, or an ahistorical nominee, like Trump. And we could still get a solidly conservative, but not fringe, nominee — a mainstream Republican — like Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush. But it’s also possible that disarray could lead to a nominee who is much more moderate than the median Republican voter — like Christie.

Now, you might be thinking: The Chris Christie who just got relegated to the junior varsity debate stage? How would that happen?

The key is for a candidate who is unacceptable to most Republicans to win in Iowa. Most likely that would be a Christian conservative, as it was in the last two Republican presidential primary campaigns. It could be Carson, who is winning in Iowa now. It could be Bobby Jindal. Or it could be Mike Huckabee or Rick Santorum, who have previously carried the state. The point is that there are a lot of viable options.

When Iowa Republicans opted for more socially conservative candidates in 2008 and 2012, however, they were rebuffed by their more moderate compatriots in New Hampshire. Mitt Romney, who had longtime ties to the Granite State, re-energized his 2012 campaign with a rout in New Hampshire, despite a narrow loss in Iowa to Santorum.1 John McCain did the same in 2008, after Huckabee won in Iowa.

But this year — with so many candidates splitting the vote and Trump acting as a wild card — mainstream Republicans are struggling in New Hampshire. Of course, that could change. Marco Rubio, who’s beginning to pick up steam, could use New Hampshire as a launching pad. The problem is that neither Rubio nor any other mainstream Republican has particularly strong ties to the state.

That potentially opens the door for someone on the left flank of the party. New Hampshire has more Republican primary voters who identify as moderate or liberal than any other early primary state. In 2012, 47 percent called themselves moderate or liberal, compared with just 17 percent in Iowa, 17 percent in Nevada and 32 percent in South Carolina. The closest comparable electorate is Massachusetts, which isn’t exactly a conservative hotbed.

So could a truly moderate Republican — as opposed to someone who’s just center-left relative to the party — win New Hampshire? Take the case of Jon Huntsman, who camped out in New Hampshire during the 2012 GOP primary, basically betting his entire campaign on the state. Huntsman lost that bet, placing third with 17 percent of the New Hampshire primary vote. But Huntsman competed against only four or five serious candidates, depending on how you count. The 2016 GOP field, in contrast, features 15 candidates. If we get to New Hampshire with such a crowded field, 17 percent could start to look pretty decent. Trump, for instance, led a MassINC New Hampshire poll released in the past week with 18 percent. It’s not difficult to imagine a candidate who is to the left of the GOP mainstream replicating and even improving on Huntsman’s performance given Huntsman’s willingness to speak down to the Republican base.

This year, several more moderate candidates — Jeb Bush, Christie and John Kasich — are trying to conjure some magic in the Granite State. Bush and Kasich aren’t too far out of the Republican ideological mainstream. Christie, however, is far left by today’s Republican standards. His overall ideology almost exactly matches Huntsman’s. (Take Carson’s position on the chart below with a grain of salt; we have very little data with which to rate his ideology.)

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Christie’s moderate record is part of the reason his net favorability rating among Republicans has been so poor nationally, and why I’ve been very skeptical of his chances of winning the nomination. I remain skeptical, though this campaign is so wacky that it shouldn’t be surprising that Christie seems to be coming to life in New Hampshire.

Christie’s horse-race numbers are still poor, but his frequent visits to New Hampshire have started to pay off: His net favorability rating in the state has risen by an average of 16 percentage points since before the second Republican debate in mid-September.

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If you look at only the polls taken since the Oct. 28 Republican debate, conducted by MassINC and Monmouth University, Christie’s net favorability has climbed an average of 25 percentage points, to +21. That’s good enough for fourth place, behind Carson, Rubio and Carly Fiorina. It puts Christie ahead of Kasich and Bush, both of whom have also been in New Hampshire a lot. (Strong favorability numbers don’t guarantee better horse-race numbers. As I have pointed out previously, many popular candidates have gone nowhere.)

Still, Christie’s improved popularity makes sense. He’s been getting kudos for strong debate performances and praise for connecting with Granite State voters on the ground.

Would Christie be able to build on a victory in New Hampshire? Maybe not. It’s possible that — if a very conservative candidate wins Iowa and a moderate candidate wins New Hampshire — the election will reset in South Carolina, creating an opening for someone who didn’t do well in either of the first two contests. But it’s also possible that momentum from winning the early primary states would set up a showdown between Christie (or another moderate candidate) and a “conservative alternative” in later primaries.

That’s a showdown Christie would be in a position to win.

Christie, for all of his flaws as a candidate, has done decently in the endorsement primary (though few endorsements have been given so far). He’s gotten two endorsements from governors, more than any other Republican. Neither Carson nor Jindal has picked up any support in the endorsement primary. There are a lot of Republican blue-state governors out there like Christie, and, as my colleague David Wasserman has demonstrated, blue states and congressional districts have a lot of delegates. If factional candidates win the early states, the chances of a prolonged primary campaign probably increase, and there are a lot of big, delegate-rich blue states later in the primary calendar.

Christie can make a pretty good argument to voters and potential endorsers that he’s the most electable candidate. No, his numbers in New Jersey aren’t great, but there’s a reason he won twice in a deep-blue state. You can see his ability to connect with voters in this video where he talks about drug addiction. His electability argument would certainly be stronger than a socially conservative candidate’s in a country that is becoming less religious. That’s a big deal when the Democratic candidate will almost certainly be Hillary Clinton.

Finally, Christie’s persona gives him more wiggle room with conservative voters than his ideology would normally dictate. He feels comfortable going on Laura Ingraham’s radio show, for example. If Trump has taught us anything, it’s that rhetoric can often be more important than record. And Christie’s confrontational style could help him overcome his more moderate record. When YouGov asked voters to place the Republicans on an ideological scale back in June, Christie came out as more conservative than Kasich.

None of this is to say that Christie (or Bush or Kasich) has a good chance of winning. The prediction markets, for instance, have Christie with just a 4 percent chance of taking the nomination. But the “GOP establishment is in disarray” storyline has led to a lot of speculation that someone like Trump or Carson or Cruz could win, when it’s just as conceivable that chaos could result in a nominee like Christie, who is to the left of the Republican mainstream.

Check out our live coverage of the GOP debate.

Footnotes

  1. Romney was initially declared the winner — by a hair — in Iowa.

Harry Enten is a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.

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