This oped originally appeared in The Hoya.
My original text (before Hoya editing) appears below:
Last week New Jersey’s incumbent governor, Republican Chris Christie, swamped his Democratic opponent Barbara Buono by a 60-39 percent margin. Virginia’s Republican candidate for governor, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, was edged by Democrat Terry McAuliffe 48-45.5 percent.
These statistics may tell the story of those 2013 gubernatorial elections, but the numbers 306 and 191 are perhaps more important for the 2016 presidential election.
If the Republicans nominate a candidate who can appeal to African-American and Latino voters as effectively as Christie did, and white voters split as they did in 2012, then the Republicans would win 306 electoral votes and the presidency with 51 percent of the popular vote.
But if the GOP selects a candidate who does as poorly among African-Americans, and who is only able to attract as large a share of the white vote as Cuccinelli, then the Grand Old Party would earn only 191 electoral votes and finish a distant second to the Democratic candidate in the popular vote with 44 percent.
(All other groups are assumed to split as they did in the 2012 presidential election; you can make your own projections at http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2013/04/30/us/politics/presidential-math-demographics-and-immigration-reform.html?_r=1&)
So Republicans must ask themselves: Are we the party of Christie or Cuccinelli?
Both candidates have their virtues. Ken Cuccinelli has had a distinguished, if highly controversial, career in public service as a lawyer, a state senator, and Attorney General. A Tea Party favorite, he is an outspoken and often hard-edged proponent of conservative social values. He opposes abortion rights in all cases except to save the life of the woman, and he supports Virginia’s constitutional ban on same sex marriage. Cuccinelli is a climate-change denier and is a staunch opponent of “Obamacare”. He has taken a hard-line stance on illegal immigration.
Before being elected as New Jersey’s governor, Chris Christie was active in campaign politics and had served as a U.S. Attorney under President George W. Bush. His opposition to abortion is not as categorical as is Cuccinelli’s and he believes abortions may be obtained in cases of rape, incest, and to protect the life of the mother. Christie opposes same sex marriage, but instructed his Attorney General not to appeal the state Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling that granted those marriage rights. He accepts that climate change is real, important, and human-induced, although his administration has generally angered environmentalists. Christie may not like Obamacare, but he notes it is the law of the land and is one of eight Republican governors to accept its Medicaid expansion. He endorsed a DREAM Act for New Jersey.
Each man is conservative: Cuccinelli, only somewhat more so. Each seeks lower taxes, less spending, and smaller government. So why might we anticipate the potentially enormous differences in presidential outcomes if the Republicans choose a Christie and not a Cuccinelli?
Because both policy and politics matter in presidential campaigns. Christie’s softer and more pragmatic conservativism is almost certainly closer to the ‘median voter’ — the voters in the middle of the American political spectrum — than is Cuccinelli’s harder and more unyielding version. In connecting to public preferences, Christie has a superior policy product.
Moreover, Christie is far more…likable. He connects with people. He is a happy warrior, not an angry one. He (in)famously “hugged” President Obama to thank him for federal support after Superstorm Sandy. Cuccinelli, for his part, has still not called McAuliffe to concede defeat and to congratulate him. Americans do not want a scold for President. They want an optimist.
Yes, Christie ran against a weak candidate who received little support from the Democratic Party. Yes, Cuccinelli was outspent by almost 2-1, and McAuliffe flooded the state with negative ads about the Republican. It is risky to put too much weight on the outcomes of state-wide races run three years before the presidential election.
Still, the Republicans must face the possibility that they could receive 306 electoral votes in 2016, or only 191. They must ask themselves: Are we the party of Christie? Or of Cuccinelli?