Marco Rubio has held the top spot since this site's inception, but there are a couple reasons (more technically, nine) why he's losing that spot and why Chris Christie is now the likeliest guy to win the GOP nomination in 2016.
The chief is this -- with his embrace of immigration reform, Rubio is now much less likely to be The Unity Conservative Candidate who can knock off the Unity Moderate Candidate -- Chris Christie.
As conservatives splinter, Christie can sweep up the middle.
1. Christie's space is less crowded.
If we go under the assumption that Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio won't run against each other, then odds are that Rubio will be the one to run and Jeb the guy to opt out.
If that's the case, Christie would become the undisputed leader of moderate Republicans (ala Mitt Romney in 2012), and it would leave Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Bobby Jindal, Rick Santorum, Scott Walker and, possibly, Ted Cruz to split the conservative vote.
It's often noted that the GOP has a studly cast of conservatives in 2016, and that's true, but that's not necessarily a great thing for conservatives. If conservatives couldn't settle on a single candidate to oust Mitt Romney, how will they form any sort of consensus with so many strong candidates on the right?
Christie, on the other hand, can sweep the moderate vote while the others fight for conservatives. If Jeb doesn't run, there just isn't another credible moderate-liberal in the mix (for both voters and big-dollar donors).
2. Immigration will hurt Rubio, but not Christie.
This screencap from The Drudge Report today shows why Rubio is in such perilous shape with a large portion of his base.
|Source: Drudge Report, April 15, 2013|
But headlines like that wouldn't pose too much risk to Christie.
Again, that's because the vast majority of Christie's support is from the moderate-liberal wing of the party, which is more progressive on immigration, while the vast majority of Rubio's support is from the very conservative wing.
Thus, Rubio is risking trouble with his base, but Christie could come out in favor of immigration reform without upsetting his base. Christie could run a primary with an eye to the general election. It would be much harder for Rubio to do that.
3. Christie can crush low expectations.
Christie has nowhere to go but up with the conservative base. They're already as disillusioned and disappointed with him as possible.
PPP has polled the national race every month since the '12 election ended, and in every one of those surveys, Christie performs worst with those calling themselves "very conservative" and "somewhat conservative", and best with moderate/liberal Republicans (here, here, here, and here).
In January, for example, Christie only got 4% of the "very conservative" vote, but scored 32% of self-described Republican moderates, so he's barely on conservatives' radar, at this point.
But here's the important thing -- there will be PLENTY of catalysts to prompt a reevaluation from the base in 2016.
Take a look at 2012.
Newt Gingrich went from villainous sellout for calling Paul Ryan's budget plan, "right-wing social engineering", in spring 2011 to conservative hero for his smackdown of the media in a presidential debate.
Debates forced conservatives to reevaluate their impressions of Newt, and Christie, likewise, has the charisma to turn perceptions of himself around in one dramatic, iconic moment.
Remember, Christie has managed to become one of the most popular governors in the country in New Jersey.
In other words, he's really good at winning over hostile groups in less than ideal political contexts. Charming the GOP base would be drop in the bucket compared to what he's done in Jersey.
Since Ronald Reagan left the scene, the GOP has nominated two Bushes, a Dole, a McCain, and a Romney.
George W. Bush and Mitt Romney were nominated when Republicans were desperate to win. Bob Dole and John McCain were nominated when Republicans were more "meh" about controlling the White House.
Desperation and indifference seem to both produce moderate nominees.
Each of those fairly guys won in varying political contexts, which means the idea that the GOP nominates moderate candidates is fairly robust.
5. The tea party is past its peak.
Tea party identification is down.
In 2010, 24% claimed to identify with the movement; now, it's just 8%.
Even if Rubio were going to claim the mantle of "tea party leader" (a huge "if"), it would mean far less in 2016 than it did in 2012, and in 2012, the tea party couldn't even stop Mitt Romney.
Then there's this -- Rubio's status as a tea partier has always been overstated. In 2010, he was the face of the movement for one, primary reason: he was a young underdog running against a hated and NRSC-endorsed, Charlie Crist.
Christie doesn't need the tea party, and after 2012, it seems the tea party is fundamentally impotent at forming consensus on alternatives at the national level.
6. Christie meets baseline GOP litmus tests.
Even though Dole, Romney, and McCain were moderate, they were conservative enough on the fundamentals (e.g. pro-life, gun control, tax platforms etc) to win the nominations.
Christie, despite some past heresies, also makes the grade.
He's had a credible evolution on abortion, moved to the right on environmental issues, repudiated calls for more gun control, post-Newton, and still opposes gay marriage.
When faced with the prospects of getting shut out of the White House again, Christie's ideology will be good enough for Republicans.
7. The Midwest.
The 2016 presidential election will, once again, be won and lost in the Midwest.
Thus, to play a little identity politics, who's a better fit for the white, working class voters of Ohio -- the Hispanic Floridian who spearheaded immigration reform and raps out to Jay-Z, or the chubby, white guy who loves Bruce Springsteen?
The caveat is that the Midwest doesn't play as critical a role in nominating a president as it does, ultimately, in electing one, but the caveat to that caveat is that Christie's appeal in the Midwest could certainly appeal to those looking for electability.
And don't underestimate the appeal of electability -- more than anything else, that's how Romney was ultimately able to sell himself to the GOP.
8. Governor > Senator.
Even among conservatives, there's considerable dissension over whether Chris Christie's record is as good as advertised, but he'll come into the primary as a governor who's done some unquestionably conservative things rather than as a Senator who, well, was just a senator.
In both primaries and general elections, we all know that governors > senators.
They generally have 1) more substantial achievements 2) a less controversial paper trail and 3) stronger perceptions of leadership.
9. Christie is the biggest rock star in the field.
Can you imagine New Hampshire townhalls? Iowa townhalls? Anywhere townhalls?