The 2012 Republican presidential campaign can best be summed up by one word – turbulent. The nominating contest that got off to a sluggish start has already seen multiple candidates surge in the polls, only to see those numbers recede. The race has also been haunted by the speculation that other big name candidates may enter the contest.
Mitch Daniels, Donald Trump, Mike Huckabee, Sarah Palin, and Chris Chrisite have all seen their names floated on more than one occasion since the 2010 elections went into the books. While some appear to be more serious than others, the on again off again speculation has cast a cloud of uncertainty over the candidates who are actually seeking the Republican nomination.
Three weeks ago, the roster seemed settled as Rick Perry’s entrance into the race gave the field something it lacked, a sitting red-state governor. However, after two weak debate performances, the appetite for another big name candidate has struck again. Even though Huckabee’s name has resurfaced in some circles in recent days, it’s New Jersey Governor Chris Christie who seems to have biggest opening to join the Republican presidential field.
By the looks of the current political environment, the 2012 election seems to be tailor-made for Chrisite. There is no guarantee that Christie’s stock will ever be higher than it is right now. In fact, getting re-elected to a second term as New Jersey’s governor is not going to be an easy task, and a loss or refusal to run for re-election could put a blemish on what is now a stellar political resume.
Christie’s straight talking, no-holds barred approach of tackling controversial issues and political opponents head-on is what makes him so appealing as a 2012 presidential candidate. At a time when the federal government needs to reform entitlement programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, Christie appears to be one of the most qualified candidates for the job.
Despite Christie’s popularity and demeanor, which seems to be a perfect match for the current political climate, the question that must be answered is not will Christie run, but can he win the nomination? There is no doubt that Christie could lead the national polls. It’s also likely that he could lead in the polls of early states like Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina based on the media attention he would receive.
Leading in the polls doesn’t mean anything unless you can win a particular state, and to win the nomination, he would have to win either Iowa, New Hampshire, or South Carolina in order to be a factor in Florida. Winning one of the first three contests is not going to be easy for Christie should he run.
Florida’s decision to hold it’s primary on January 31st will force the four early states to move up their contests, thus limiting the amount of time he could campaign in those states. The front loading of the calendar makes doing well in the early contests vitally important, but with little time between Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, it also could give an advantage to a candidate who garners national attention and thus can raise the type of money to fund a multi-pronged campaign.
In the current field of candidates, that advantage goes to Rick Perry and Mitt Romney. However, it would also aide Christie. Many believe that Christie could do well in New Hampshire and Florida, but they also have doubts about how well Christie could do in conservative states like Iowa and South Carolina. If Chrisite wants to be the nominee, he shouldn’t look to resurrect Rudy Giuliani’s 2008 campaign plan and focus entirely on Florida, instead he needs to see the opportunity that a state like Iowa brings.
Here is how I would look at Iowa if I were a Christie advisor.
Iowa – Fields of Opportunity
The Competition – Weak, Unorganized, or Unknown
There are currently four campaigns actively engaged in Iowa – Ron Paul, Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, and Rick Santorum. However, none of those campaigns can hold a candle to the type of organization that was built by Romney in 2008, or Bush and Forbes in 2000. It is true that Huckabee was able to overcome Romney’s well-oiled campaign and scores of paid “volunteers,” but by this time in 2007, Huckabee didn’t have any competition for the social conservative vote in Iowa. That’s not the case at this moment in time as Bachmann, Perry, Santorum and even Ron Paul are dividing up the social conservative vote.
With Romney content with staying away from Iowa, there is an opportunity for a high-profile candidate like Christie to find ample support here. Additionally, as Perry has begun to build an Iowa organization, Bachmann has seen her support in Iowa fade, and Santorum can’t seem to move his poll numbers, perhaps indicating the support that they do have is still relatively soft. There is no campaign that would currently impede Chrisite’s ability to build a base of support in Iowa.
Simply put, there is no reason to fear any of the campaign organizations that have been built in Iowa thus far.
An Al Davis Election – Just Win, Baby
“Just Win, Baby” is the motto of Al Davis, the owner of the Oakland Raiders, but it is also the motto of the Republican electorate in 2012. Voters are united on one issue – President Obama’s policies are bad for the county and he must be replaced in the next election. The electorate’s desire to defeat President Obama makes it likely that they are willing to overlook a candidate’s flaws if they think he/she could win in the general election.
A similar phenomenon happened in Iowa for the 2010 Republican primary for governor. Even though Iowa primaries are dominated by social conservatives, former Governor Terry Branstad was able to defeat social conservative Bob Vander Plaats by almost ten points because the issue that mattered the most to voters was defeating the incumbent governor, Chet Culver, not necessarily any certain position on an issue.
Be Comfortable With Who You Are
Mitt Romney learned this lesson the hard way. Romney came into Iowa and tried to cozy up with social conservatives in 2008. It worked for a while, but once details of his previous statements and record came to light, those people abandoned him. The worst thing a presidential candidate can do in Iowa is pander to a group of people.
Christie has proven to be comfortable in his own skin, and there is no need to tweak his message or rhetoric because he happens to be campaigning in Iowa. In fact, Iowans like getting it straight from candidates.
Fundraise Nationally, But Campaign Locally
The idea that Iowa is too social conservative for a candidate like Chrisite to do well here is false. One only needs to look at the 2012 Republican primary for governor to see that mainstream Republicans will participate if there is a candidate who motivates them.
The 2010 primary saw a number of people who had not participated in a Republican primary in years participate this time around due to Branstad’s candidacy. While some of that was based on the fact that he was a popular former governor, but voters were also clamoring for a candidate who they knew could do the job of governor.
Christie would appeal to many of the same people and for the same reasons. About 30,000 more Iowans voted in the 2010 primary for governor than voted in the last contested gubernatorial primary, which was in 2002. There are plenty of no-nonsense Republicans in Iowa, so the key is getting them motivated to attend their caucus. A candidate like Christie could easily do that if he took Iowa seriously.
Christie’s celebrity would also allow him to attract new people to the caucus process, which is something no other candidate except Ron Paul may be able to do.
Keep It Simple – Public Events, ID Work, and Turnout
There is no reason to try to reinvent the wheel. The candidate who wins the caucuses will do so because he or she outworked his or her opposition, not because they somehow out-schemed the system. Traveling the state and holding a series of events where potential caucus goers can interact with the candidate is the type of work that pays off.
Chrisite would be a natural draw, and his willingness to take questions and mix it up with those in the audience makes him a natural for town hall style events. What makes the caucuses unique is that most of the people who show up to support a candidate on caucus night probably have personally met that candidate. It is these small events that allow you to ID supporters by encouraging them to attend and then signing them up when they show up. Besides that, the focus needs to be on turning out your supporters to attend the caucuses. Anything beyond that is probably a waste of time and money.
Big Risk – But Bigger Reward
Can Chris Christie win Iowa? I don’t know, but after surveying the landscape, I think Iowa might be the one early state that is the most open to a newcomer to the race. While it would not be easy and would require a time commitment, Christie could carve out a win in Iowa, and if he does that, he may roll over the rest of the field.
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