NATIONAL HARBOR, Md.
When the Conservative Political Action Conference kicked off here on Thursday morning, all eyes were on New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. No presidential prospect has endured a rougher few months, and Christie has been attacked from all sides.
Once a media darling, his popularity took a beating when e-mails surfaced in January revealing that senior members of his administration had purposely blocked traffic on the George Washington Bridge to harm a political rival. This has sparked multiple investigations. The hardcore activists who attend CPAC have never been fond of Christie because the media likes him (or used to) and because he cozied up to President Obama after Hurricane Sandy as Mitt Romney was on his way to losing the 2012 presidential election. Over the last few months, political pundits and conservative activists have taken turns declaring his presidential hopes dead.
That was also true at the CPAC conference, where the buzz was a new Washington Post/ABC News poll showing that 30 percent of self-identified Republicans “definitely would not vote for” Christie — the largest tally of any GOP candidate. If Christie couldn’t win over the party’s grass roots, the skeptics claimed, then he couldn’t possibly compete in states like Iowa and New Hampshire that are considered crucial to winning the nomination. Perhaps hoping to kill off Christie’s candidacy right there at the conference, one activist stood outside the ballroom busily trying to organize a walkout during his speech.
When he took the stage around noon, Christie appeared undaunted. He delivered a low-key speech full of platitudes and drew a self-flattering distinction between Washington Republicans, who “can’t stop talking,” and those serving in the real America outside the Beltway, in places like New Jersey. “Governors,” Christie declared, “get things done.”
He also emphasized the importance of winning elections, concluding his speech with a peroration whose purpose was to remind the audience that he was among the few Republicans with a plausible shot at occupying the White House. “[We need to] show people that Republicans know what we stand for and know how to get things done in this country,” he said. “But to do that I’ll remind you of just one simple truth in this democracy: We don’t get to govern if we don’t win.”
Either Christie’s point hit home or the conservative animosity toward him has been exaggerated. Likely, both are true. In any event, the walkout never materialized, nor did any boos or catcalls from the supposedly hostile audience. Instead, Christie drew rousing applause.
The fact is electability has always been Christie’s greatest strength and will continue to be, unless he’s indicted or shown to have orchestrated some terrible new scandal we don’t know about. The conventional wisdom about how Republicans win the nomination is wrong, too. While activists like those at CPAC get a disproportionate amount of media attention and thus are assumed to have the most influence over the primary process, political science has consistently suggested the opposite is true.
As John Sides and Lynn Vavreck note in “The Gamble,” their excellent study of the 2012 presidential election, “Despite common portrayals of the Republican Party as dominated by Tea Party members, evangelicals, pro-life activists, and the like, these groups are actually minorities within the party.” The candidates who usually win the nomination are those favored by the party establishment, donors, and mainstream Republicans. “Since Reagan’s nomination,” they write, “every competitive Republican presidential primary has featured the triumph of a relative moderate over at least one if not more conservative candidates.”
For all the bad press over Bridgegate, Christie hasn’t been abandoned by party leaders or major donors. True, some conservatives don’t like him. But the media’s criticism has prompted others to rally behind him. His CPAC reception hardly left the impression that he’s unacceptable to the base. All things considered, Christie may be better positioned to win the Republican nomination than he was a year ago.
As for that poll of Republicans swearing up and down they’d never vote for him? Don’t believe it. In 2011, Gallup found that 26 percent of Republicans would “definitely not vote for” Mitt Romney, who, of course, went on to win the nomination and the vote of just about every Republican in the country.Joshua Green is national correspondent at Bloomberg Businessweek. Follow him on Twitter @JoshuaGreen.