In the wake of Chris Christie’s reelection romp on Tuesday, the press is filled with comparisons between the New Jersey governor and a pre-presidency George W. Bush. They’re both Republican governors who appear moderate and bipartisan compared to their party’s zealots in Washington. They’re both beloved by big donors. Each has made inroads among the Democratic-leaning constituencies with whom Republicans must do better. But there’s a problem with the analogy. It’s unlikely Christie can “win” the presidency by running as a second Bush, in part America still remembers the first one.
Start with the quotation marks. The first problem with modeling yourself on Bush is that at least in terms of popular vote, Bush didn’t win. Al Gore beat him by about half a percentage point. Had the ultra-progressive Ralph Nader not scooped up almost three points of his own, Gore’s victory would have been larger. So unless Christie is counting on a significant third-party challenger from the left, elderly Jewish voters in Florida accidentally voting for Pat Buchanan, and the United States Supreme Court stepping in to quash a manual recount, he’s unlikely to win—as Bush did—with less than 48 percent of the vote.
Second, America is a different place than it was in 2000. Back then, minorities constituted 17 percent of the voters who showed up on Election Day. In 2016, they’ll likely constitute 30 percent. Since not even the most optimistic Christie boosters think he can win a majority of black or Hispanics votes, their huge increase as a share of the electorate means that even if he replicated Bush’s showing, Christie would do worse overall.
And it’s unlikely he can replicate Bush’s showing. In 2000, Bush lost the Hispanic vote to Gore by 27 points. That was pretty good because, according to the Pew Research Center, Latinos in 1999 were 33 points less likely to register as Republicans than as Democrats. (Pew doesn’t show the data for 2000.) In other words, Bush beat the Republican brand by six points. But since then, the GOP’s disadvantage among Hispanics has grown substantially. By 2011, according to Pew, the Hispanic registration gap was up to 47 points. That means even if Christie beat his party’s brand by the same number Bush did, his share of the Hispanic vote would be 14 points lower.
Third, if Christie faces a more numerous and more hostile Hispanic population than Bush did, he also faces a much bigger problem among young people. The percentage of voters under the age of 30 has crept up since 2000. More significantly, the outlook of young people has changed dramatically. In 2000, people didn’t talk about Bush’s ability overcome the GOP’s youth problem because the GOP didn’t have a youth problem. The young people of 2000 were Generation Xers. Some of them had positive memories of Ronald Reagan, some had positive memories of Bill Clinton , and they backed the two parties in roughly even numbers. Today’s young people are millennials, born after 1980. They don’t remember Reagan. Many of them ++like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. They mostly loathe Bush, and according to Pew, they favor the Democrats by almost 20 points. Maybe Christie can chip away at that margin, but it’s still a margin he has to chip away at. Bush didn’t have to. When he was running, young people had not yet been alienated by the presidency of George W. Bush.
Because the Republican brand is so much worse now, Christie will have to distance himself from it more dramatically than Bush did to win over Hispanics, young people, and to a lesser extent women. But he also will need to rack up huge margins from the Republican base, a group with whom he lacks Bush’s tight bond.
In 2000, it was much easier for Bush to keep the GOP’s right-wing base happy while still winking at swing voters. In the run-up to the Iowa caucuses, Steve Forbes, Gary Bauer, and Alan Keyes all tried to win over Christian conservative voters by talking nonstop about abortion and other red-meat cultural issues. Bush, by contrast, ignored those subjects almost completely, seeking to safeguard his reputation among general election moderates. Yet among Christian right voters in Iowa, Bush still came out on top. The reasons: his own, highly publicized evangelical faith, which he effectively advertised a few weeks before the caucuses by announcing during a Republican debate that “Christ” was his favorite philosopher. And he had strong support from Republican leaders—including Christian right leaders such as Ralph Reed—who mobilized conservative voters behind the candidate they thought could win in November.
Christie has neither of those advantages. He lacks Bush’s strong emotional connection with the Republican base, and compared to 2000, that base is far less willing to defer to pragmatic elites. A recent study by William and Mary researchers, for instance, found that three-quarters of Tea Partiers would rather back a Republican candidate they agree with on the issues but trails far behind the likely Democratic nominee than a candidate they agree with less who has a better chance to win.
I’m not saying Christie can’t get the GOP nomination. But if he does, his path will be more like the one John McCain unsuccessfully pursued in 2000 than the one Bush took. Like McCain, Christie—who probably can’t win in conservative Iowa and South Carolina—instead will focus on states such as New Hampshire, where independents can vote in the Republican primary. That means unlike Bush, who entered the general election with the GOP’s conservative base already sewn up, Christie will have to spend the weeks following his nomination victory mending fences with the Tea Party activists who didn’t vote for him. He’ll have to do so while also significantly outperforming Bush among the young, female, and minority voters who loathe the GOP’s Ted Cruz-wing.
And oh yes, I almost forgot. He won’t be running against Gore.