Chris Christie went to Iowa this week, bringing what reporters inevitably call his "trademark New Jersey style" to the heartland, where he could mix and mingle with the small number of Republican voters who have the power, a year and a half hence, to either elevate him or crush his White House dreams. And in the process he got an education in what running for president means. While we often describe candidates as having to "move to the right" in the primaries (or to the left for Democrats), what actually happens is often not a move to edge, but a descent from the general to the specific.
And in practice, that can mean much the same thing. Here's a report from one of Christie's events:
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) said Thursday that he backs the Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby ruling, after declining to give an opinion on the outcome of the case earlier this month.
Christie voiced his support in response to a question from an attendee at a meet-and-greet event in Marion, Iowa, where Christie was campaigning for Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad (R). The Democratic research super PAC American Bridge caught the exchange on video.
"Do I support the Supreme Court decision in the Hobby Lobby case? I do," Christie said, according to the video posted by American Bridge.
"Do you support Hobby Lobby's position on birth control for its employees?" the attendee pressed.
"Well I just said I support the case, so if I support the case and they support the Hobby Lobby--" Christie said before moving on to greet other attendees.
If you're a governor, you can dodge questions for long periods simply because you don't have to answer that many of them. I don't know how often Christie does a press conference, but it's not that frequent. And when he goes out to do events around his state, people are going to ask him about whatever local issues they're concerned about. He doesn't need a well-considered position on every national issue that comes up.
But once you go to Iowa to meet with people who are only thinking of you as a presidential candidate, not only do you have to answer more questions, they come at you in contexts like a Des Moines living room or a Sioux City diner. Unlike when you're giving a press conference, you can't say, "That's all the time we have today, folks" and walk out. If you don't answer to someone's satisfaction, they're going to keep pressing you until you do, and you might just lose them. Back a zillion years ago when I was working on a presidential campaign, I gave one voter a compelling argument for why he should vote for my candidate, and he replied that though I made some sense, a few weeks before he went to an event with my candidate, and he had a question for him but never got the chance to ask it, so he was voting for somebody else. I wanted to throttle the guy.
So not only do you have to answer more questions, those questions come with follow-ups, and the activist voters you're hoping to win over at this stage aren't going to accept "Well, it's complicated" as an answer on anything. So candidates have to come out clearly in favor of something like the Hobby Lobby ruling—absolutely non-negotiable with the Republican base, but broadly unpopular with the general public.
What that means is that "moving to the right" is produced by the practicalities of running in a retail election, where voters in some places (two states in particular) want to stick their finger in your chest and take the measure of you before they'll deign to bestow their vote up on you. In that context, there's nowhere to hide.
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