It’s easy to spin a postmortem analysis of Tuesday’s elections as a precursor to a 2016 presidential campaign pitting Republican Chris Christie against Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton. Christie won reelection as governor of New Jersey in a landslide, attracting minority and women voters in numbers unreachable for most Republicans. Clinton ally Terry McAuliffe won the Virginia gubernatorial election with a staff stocked from her orbit.
There is even data: Exit polls show Clinton narrowly beating Christie in New Jersey
It’s hard to resist the appeal of conventional wisdom — but in this case (actually, in most cases) you should. Here are seven reasons to remain open to anything other than a Clinton-Christie contest.
Clinton is the status quo. Yes, she would be the first female president. And, since her days in Arkansas, the former first lady and secretary of State has been a forward-thinker on issues that matter to people buffeted by the currents of social and economic change. But the Clinton family is a political institution at a time when voters are looking to disrupt and rebuild institutions. A generation after she helped her husband win the presidency as an “agent of change,” reclaiming that mantle will be tricky.
Christie is a Republican. That means he can’t be president without winning the GOP nomination, which requires fealty to a no-compromise brand of conservatism that moderate voters abhor. As Jonathan Chait wrote, Christie supports gun control and immigration reform, and agrees with the overwhelming weight of scientific evidence on climate change. The tea party won’t like him. If he pulls a John McCain and lurches right for the nomination (as the Arizona senator did in 2008), Christie likely would suffer a similar fate.
Clinton is untested. It seems odd to write those words about a woman I watched overcome sexism and skepticism in Arkansas and scandal in Washington to become a U.S. senator and secretary of State. But it’s a fact that Clinton has run just one seriously contested campaign, the 2008 Democratic nomination fight against Barack Obama. It was hers to lose, and she lost it. (She won her Senate seat in a Democratic state, New York, and against a weak GOP foe, Rick Lazio.)
Christie has skeletons in his closet. Mark Halperin and John Heilemann report in their book Double Down that Mitt Romney passed over Christie for the 2012 vice presidential nomination after a background check raised red flags. Among them: a 2010 Justice Department inspector general’s investigation of Christie’s spending practices in his job before he was governor, his actions as a lobbyist, and his decisions to steer government contractors to political allies.
Clinton is out of practice. Her last political campaign was five years ago. Her last victory was seven years ago. The question is whether Clinton’s retail campaign skills have improved or declined with time. For 25 years now, I have marveled at the distance between her public caricature (cold, angry, and manipulative) and her private persona (warm, funny, and engaging — more so even than her famously charming husband). It’s possible that the 2008 defeat as well as her time out of the arena taught Clinton to break out of her hard shell.
Christie is a bully. In an era of deception, Christie’s blunt style is an enormous asset. But it could also be a liability if voters start interpreting his passion as lack of tolerance, discipline, and stability. How well will he wear on voters?
Remember 2005. The election is three years away. It might as well be three decades away given the speed of modern culture. In 2005, three years before the Obama-McCain general election, USA Today published the result of a poll showing New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani as the front-runner for the 2008 GOP nomination.
Among Democrats, Clinton lapped the pack with 40 percent support. She led both Sens. John Kerry and John Edwards, the 2004 ticket. Obama was not even mentioned. That raises the question: Who is the 2016 dark horse?
CORRECTION: The original story incorrectly stated how long it had been since Clinton’s last election victory. The year was 2006.