Chris Christie gave a press conference about the traffic scandal that implicates many of his top staffers. The 2016 landscape is substantially altered now. PHOTO: Reuters
While there is still a major election this November, the 2016 presidential race is well under way, and Chris Christie’s traffic scandal has big implications for the 2016 landscape. This is especially so, because in addition to being a major candidate, Christie occupies a unique space in the landscape of 2016 contenders: he was the furthest left, and had the most established reputation as a no-nonsense guy. He would have little chance in certain early primary states (Iowa, South Carolina), but he could look great in New Hampshire and Florida.
To get a feel for what happens with Christie weakened, let’s take a look at the general landscape of the Republican Party 2016 field (and yes, a lot could happen as a result of traffic-gate—maybe Christie ends up more popular than when he started somehow—but let’s assume the most obvious outcome for now, which is that it hurts him). We can break the GOP field into three basic categories: far-right, mainstream and centrist. These categorizations will blend actual policies and branding. For instance, Marco Rubio is basically as conservative as Rand Paul, but they have different reputations and strategies, which makes enough of a difference to put them into different categories (also, “mainstream” Republicans are still very conservative).
Far-right: Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Rick Santorum, wildcard. Wildcard stands for the person who no one saw coming, is a total nut, and will be leading in Iowa at some point in November, 2015. Last time, that was Herman Cain.
Mainstream: Marco Rubio, Paul Ryan, Bobby Jindal, Scott Walker, mildcard. The mildcard is like the wildcard, except it will be an established politician who decides that it is his or her time to run for president, and the rest of the world will just scratch their heads.
Centrist: Jeb Bush, Jon Huntsman Jr., Chris Christie.
If Chris Christie is damaged, perhaps even to the point of not running, that helps Jeb Bush considerably. As for Huntsman, his campaign in 2012 was hilariously tepid. He would make for an interesting candidate if he could run a good campaign, but it seems like he can’t.
Anyway, Jeb Bush is looking good now, but what if America, even Republican America, can’t stomach another Bush? What if the “Centrist” column ends up with no one viable or no one at all?
That leaves our Mainstream list in an interesting position, specifically, the straddle. All of them would see a fair amount of abandoned real estate to their political left, but none of them want to incur the anger of the far-right voters. The strategy for everyone in the mainstream column is to pick up enough far-right votes, and not offend them with any heresy like man-made climate change, and still look the most exciting and presidential to the mainstream Republican voters. Romney barely pulled that off last time.
So, who among the remaining field can pull that off? Rubio is a possibility, but like Romney, Rubio gets really awkward when he is trying to play to multiple constituencies at once. Ryan is one of those guys who just has a hard time exciting anyone, so I don’t see it with him. Jindal? He’ll have to prove that he can play to a national audience, but he might be able to pick up some centrist love. Scott Walker is probably too far-right to pull it off.
The Real Winner
The real winner here might be…Hillary Clinton. If Clinton runs (likely) her biggest task to secure the nomination will be to fend off attacks from her left. If she does get the nomination, she will undoubtedly tack to the center, and very few Republicans can comfortably meet her there. Chris Christie could, but if he’s out, the best chance the Republicans might have to beat Clinton is Bush.
And it’s okay if you read that sentence and wondered for a moment what decade you were in.