No Thing As Too Early

How Chris Christie Can Win in 2016

The campaign for president has already begun, and the New Jersey governor is in a dead heat with Hillary Clinton. Here’s how he can take the White House.

Kena Betancur/Getty

Governor Christie, on Election Day you won reelection by more than 20 points, and a Quinnipiac poll shows you in a dead heat with Hillary Rodham Clinton. Campaign 2016 starts now.

If you are to win the Republican nomination and then remain viable, you must do three things. First, get a top notch tech team up and running, the sooner the better. Second, build bridges to Southern Republicans, who have yet to cotton to you. Third, lessen your tropism toward Wall Street.

For starters, the campaign technology gap is a Republican Achilles’ heel. All those years of Republican solicitude to the Bible Belt, and its vibes, such as hostility to gay marriage, have alienated techsters—who are likely to be anything but fundamentalist Christians.

In 2008, the Republicans had Sarah Palin, but Obama had the Consortium of Behavioral Scientists, a “Fight Club” of 29 psychologists, economists, and law professors dedicated to sending Democrats to Congress and a Democrat to the White House. The Consortium successfully abetted Obama’s efforts at campaign data analytics and electoral micro targeting. Oh, and the Obama folks also had the support of the leaders of Google.

Then, a year ago—and again to no one’s surprise—Obama beat Romney at the campaign tech game. As Inside the Cave, an outside postmortem research report, observed: the “GOP needs to catch up AND get ahead of where campaigns are going next like OFA did with Analytics in 2012.”

Indeed, earlier this month the story was the same in Virginia. Terry McAuliffe, former Democratic National Committee chairman and Clinton crony, bested social conservative Ken Cuccinelli by less than three points, and campaign analytics played an outsize role. Per Politico’s Emily Schultheis, “McAuliffe’s data operation was like a miniature version of Obama’s.” Beginning in February 2013, “McAuliffe’s campaign conducted a 10,000-respondent poll and 10 focus groups...that served as the basis for their modeling throughout the campaign.”

Next, you need to work on shoring up your Southern flank. Once again, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) is going at you, this time attributing your reelection being “in large form, based on that he got a lot of federal money for his state.”

Going tit-for-tat with Paul so early is a loser, and touting your ties to former Mississippi governor Haley Barbour can only get you so far. So, in addition to looking for Barbour’s backing, start making friends with former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who now lives in Destin, on Florida’s Emerald Coast.

In case you might have forgotten, Romney was repeatedly tagged in the Southern primaries by Georgia’s Newt Gingrich and Pennsylvania’s Rick Santorum. Romney’s South Carolina loss had his campaign staring into the abyss, but his win in the Florida primary kept him on track for the nomination.

Sowing seeds in that region today could pay off later, in the primaries and on Election Day. Paul and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) should not be the only voices there.

You will need to earn votes and trust, and Huckabee might just provide you with another opening. To be sure, the South is doable. Early polls show you leading the GOP field in South Carolina, and you’re the only Republican who bests Hillary in North Carolina.

And without Florida, a Republican win is highly unlikely. Since World War II, no Republican has captured the White House without taking Florida.

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Finally, governor, you need to stop wrapping yourself in the shadow of Wall Street. The Republican voter base is anything but Northeastern or elitist. For all of the financial industry’s largesse to the national GOP, Democrats represent the region in Congress. Even tony Greenwich, ancestral home of the Bush family, sends a Democrat to the House.

As Romney learned the hard way, titans of finance can be more of a hindrance than a help. Two things you don’t need are a would-be backer who calls for nuking Iran, or a big name donor forking out $1.2 billion as a penalty for insider trading while his company cops a guilty plea.

Remember, Wall Street is not loved, not even among the Republican base. According to a September 2013 Wall Street Journal/NBC poll, Wall Street firms are even less popular than the president, the Republican Party, or the Tea Party. More troubling for a candidate who clings to Wall Street, 59 percent of conservative Republicans view Wall Street negatively, according to a previous ABC/Washington Post poll.

Before I forget, there are also things of substance. After the failures of Iraq and Obamacare, the country needs a president who can just “do it,” who is not swept up into believing that he hears God’s call or is enamored with his own Messianic pretensions.

Kicking demon rum and delivering a message of personal redemption are not qualifications for the office. Speaking in front of Greek columns while accepting a nomination, stressing your own transformational capacities, should only make one a motivational speaker—and nothing more.

America is tired of avatars and ideologues. Reality calls.

Over the last dozen years, we have been sadly reminded that basic competence matters and that grandiosity is not what is needed first and foremost. Élan helps, a common touch is useful, and a narrative can be compelling. But they are not ends in themselves.

If we are looking at you going toe-to-toe with Hillary on Election Day 2016, it may not necessarily feel ennobling, and it will likely be devoid of the Vision Thing, thankfully. But it will be normal, and these days that’s plenty.