How Chris Christie could win Iowa

This article originally appeared on RealClearPolitics.

  With most Americans rightly focused this week on coordinating travel plans and Thanksgiving recipes, even the most ardent of political junkies might have missed the release of one poll on the 2016 race for the White House.

What's more, surveys conducted this far in advance of the voting typically fare poorly as predictors of outcome.

But this particular survey, conducted by the Republican-affiliated Harper Polling, provided one key insight as the prospective candidates begin crafting their strategies for winning the GOP nomination.

Christie led the pack with 17 percent of the vote, edging out Cruz’s 16 percent share, with Paul rounding out the top three at 13 percent.

To many who having followed the early jockeying, Christie’s showing is surprising. Based on conversations with many of the conservative activists and Republican political operatives who hold sway in Iowa, the idea of the nation’s first voting state backing the New Jersey governor is something close to inconceivable.

 And, in truth, the possibility does appear a bit far-fetched at first glance. How could Christie, who just won re-election by downplaying his party label and reaching out to Democrats and independents, emerge the victor in a Midwestern GOP caucus dominated by evangelicals and other deeply conservative voters?

But there is indeed a path to victory for Christie in the Hawkeye State. He could win there the same way Mitt Romney almost did in 2012.

Campaigning heavily in New Hampshire as the front-runner in a field crowded with more conservative opponents, Romney largely avoided Iowa throughout 2011. It wasn’t until the last couple of weeks of that year that he made a hard push there after the opportunity to win was too glaring to ignore.

In a field of six major candidates, Romney ended up earning 24.5 percent of the vote -- good enough for an effective tie with Santorum for first place.

Though the former Massachusetts governor won just 14 percent of caucus-goers who described themselves as “very conservative” (and who made up 47 percent of the electorate), he was the top choice among the 37 percent of voters who called themselves “somewhat conservative.”

Romney also won 35 percent of the vote among self-described moderates and liberals, who made up 17 percent of the electorate.

The parallels to Christie’s potential ability to carry Iowa by running to the center are clear.

In the Harper poll, the New Jersey governor won the support of 28.8 percent of likely caucus-goers who call themselves moderates -- more than 12 points higher than his closest competitor.

There is little doubt that Christie benefited from the publicity boom his resounding re-election victory provided earlier in the month, but the potential for the brash Northeasterner to make a serious play in Iowa remains apparent.

In the 2016 primary campaign, he may well have the ideological center essentially to himself, as the rest of the multi-candidate field of arch-conservatives fight among themselves for pieces of the Iowa pie.

And while the GOP’s slate of contenders is almost certain to be stronger than it was in 2012, Christie will likely be a better candidate on the national stage than Romney was.

General antipathy toward Christie among Iowa conservatives may indeed be a key factor when Republicans head to their caucus sites in little over two years, but the contest is not a measure of the majority’s preference, but rather the most-preferred choice of a minority.

Much will be made of how Christie’s Northeastern roots and brash demeanor will play among the “Iowa nice” set, but regionalism is an oft-overstated phenomenon in modern presidential politics.

Christie has been well received in previous visits to the state, and his strong retail politicking skills likely would go over well there, despite his views on issues like gun control and climate change, which are out of step with rank-and-file conservatives.

Sources close to the governor have been tight-lipped about their thinking on 2016 strategy, and the all-but-certain candidate may well decide that the downside of playing hard and losing in Iowa outweighs any upside.

This calculus would make even more sense if Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker -- whose possible candidacy figures to appeal to both grassroots and establishment Republicans -- enters the fray and makes a strong play in his neighboring state.

But there is no doubt that the potential exists for Christie to replicate Romney’s Iowa playbook by hanging back and then making a strong effort toward the end if the conservative vote remains divided.

And if he succeeds in that endeavor and gains a full head of steam heading into New Hampshire, where Christie is far better positioned, the race for the 2016 Republican nomination may end up being all but over just as it is getting under way. 

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    Scott Conroy is a National Political Reporter for RealClearPolitics and a contributor for CBS News.