Donald Trump has been ahead in the polls since he announced his candidacy (minus a brief period when Carson was dominating), and he's won the most contests so far (admittedly not a large number) — but it wasn't until this week that he started to acquire mainstream endorsements. Two members of Congress endorsed him on Wednesday, and today he secured the support of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who exited the race himself only a few weeks ago.
This appears to have provoked a strong reaction among commentators, to say the least. In some ways, Christie has been the anti-Trump — he speaks forcefully but has delivered relatively few memorable punchlines. He did well with elite endorsements before he dropped out, but never really caught on with voters. His problems were assumed to be with the Republican "base" — the socially conservative evangelical voters in the South and Midwest, with whom Trump has so far done pretty well.
In this graph put together by FiveThirtyEight's Harry Enten, Christie registers as the most liberal candidate by far, with the most liberal elite supporters (although his endorsers appear to be quite a bit more conservative that he is).
Trump has, of course, presented a challenge for those of us who like to measure ideology. He has no congressional voting record, list of donors from a previous campaign, or any of the usual things — we have to rely on his statements. Thus far, experts have generally cast him as "moderate" in the sense that his positions — and those of his supporters in the electorate — are not consistent. Does this put him and Christie on the same ideological wavelength?
Obviously, it's hard to say. Looking at things they've said during debates, some similarities emerge. Christie has noted that his pro-life stance extends to treatment for those suffering from drug addiction; Trump said in the most recent debate (February 25) that his health care plan would not allow "people to die in the streets."
These statements are departures from some of the more standard lines about limiting the government's role in health issues (or, say, the spectacle of Ron Paul supporters chanting "let him die" during a discussion of health care in a 2012 debate). Neither Trump nor Christie seems to embrace the emphasis on free market economic philosophy that seems to motivate Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, or Scott Walker.
But there are big differences, too. It's safe to say that the cornerstone of Trump's candidacy is immigration, with promises to "build a wall" to keep out Mexican immigrants. Christie, by contrast, said relatively little about immigration in the debates (though he did sign on to Trump's general border security view during the second debate in Simi Valley). A New York Times piece summarizing Christie's issue stances places him outside the party mainstream for his tendency to "play down the need for more border security," and mentions that he signed a 2014 bill allowing some undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition at New Jersey state universities.
Trump and Christie diverge on foreign policy as well. Throughout the debates, Christie distinguished himself as a strong hawk on foreign policy, going so far as to promise to shoot down Russian planes in a 2015 debate. Trump, by contrast, has now suggested several times that the United States would be better off had it curtailed its involvement in the Middle East — if Bush and Cheney had "gone to the beach" instead of invading Iraq.
Where, then, is the point of connection? I think a lot of people are going to be tempted to cast this in personality terms — that they're both bullies or straight talkers, depending on where you stand. But beyond that lies a dimension that political scientists sometimes call process preferences. This means that people have ideas about how politics should work as well as opinions about policy outcomes. Political scientists have pointed to authoritarianism as the key trait for determining Trump support. What links Christie and Trump is a similar concept: Both have expressed contempt for deliberative governing institutions and processes, and touting their ability to "get things done."
An illustrative example of this is Christie's fight with Rand Paul during the first debate about obtaining phone records from suspected terrorists. Paul said he favored going after terrorists but not innocent Americans. Christie responded, "How are you supposed to know?"
The thing that's striking about the issue is that it doesn't align with any of the usual ways we characterize intraparty divisions. It's not about ideological purity — Trump brags about his ability to "make deals," and Christie has clearly had to make compromises as governor of a blue state. It's not really an establishment thing — both politicians flaunt their outsider credentials, but Christie, the former chair of the Republican Governors Association, can hardly claim to be one. And it's tangential to the divide over social issues often associated with the conservative movement.
What remains to be seen is whether this is a real and emerging faction within the Republican Party. The absence of a strong ideological framework makes it less likely to be durable. But the idea of a powerful, decisive executive has a place in existing conservative thought. Christie's support for Trump could just be about Christie. Or it could indicate a split in the party that crosses the usual lines.