WASHINGTON — If a presidential election were to be held today, nearly one-third of the electoral college votes would be cast by electors living in a state with marriage equality. That number is going to be higher by 2016, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie knows it, and that's the key way to explain what happened over the past 24 hours in New Jersey.
To see how quickly the public dynamics on the issue are changing, one need only look to the responses of two other Republican governors to marriage decisions — and to see which one Christie eventually followed, turning his back on the Republican Party politics of the issue since the marriage fight began.
Christie wasn't the first to do so. In 2008, a Republican governor accepted a court ruling in favor of marriage equality, similar to Christie's decision on Monday to stop efforts to stop same-sex couples from marrying in the Garden State. The governor was Arnold Schwarzenegger and the state was California, though, and Schwarzenegger — absent a constitutional amendment — couldn't run for president.
On May 15, 2008, Schwarzenegger announced in response to a state Supreme Court ruling in favor of marriage equality, "I respect the court's decision and as governor, I will uphold its ruling. Also, as I have said in the past, I will not support an amendment to the constitution that would overturn this state Supreme Court ruling." Later, when the Proposition 8 amendment passed, he did not defend it in court — forcing outside supporters of the amendment to defend the initiative instead.
Christie, at the last minute, apparently decided to hew closer to Schwarzenegger's path — and not to the path taken by the last Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney.
When Romney was faced with a court decision ordering marriage equality in Massachusetts, the then-governor fought it every step of the way. Romney loudly opposed the decision itself and then sought to change the effect of the decision, saying, "I believe that a civil union-type provision would be sufficient" — a view the court rejected. He then turned to a 1913 law aimed at stopping the spread of interracial marriages to keep same-sex couples from other states marrying in Massachusetts. Finally, he supported an ultimately unsuccessful effort to amend the state's constitution to ban same-sex couples from marrying.
On Monday, in contrast, a spokesman for Christie announced that the administration would withdraw its appeal to the state Supreme Court of a trial-court ruling requiring the state to allow same-sex couples to marry — effectively ending the debate over marriage equality in the state.
Christie had vetoed the legislature's passage of a marriage equality bill and then fought the lawsuit to bring marriage equality to the state, but on Monday he brought an end to the fight before it was over. His decision to back down was unusual for the governor, reflecting an aversion to a high-profile loss on the issue that a Republican even two years ago might have held out as a credential in party politics. He eventually backed other LGBT rights measures, signing into law an anti-bullying bill and a bill banning therapists' efforts to change the sexual orientation of minors.
Although Christie initially appealed the trial-court ruling on marriage equality, the state Supreme Court unanimously refused last week to put the lower-court ruling on hold while considering the appeal — with language strongly suggesting the justices planned to rule against Christie's appeal when they heard it.
A spokesman for Christie said Monday, "Although the governor strongly disagrees with the court substituting its judgment for the constitutional process of the elected branches or a vote of the people, the court has now spoken clearly as to their view of the New Jersey constitution and, therefore, same-sex marriage is the law. The governor will do his constitutional duty and ensure his administration enforces the law as dictated by the New Jersey Supreme Court."
Christie's entire defense of the marriage law, in fact, has been premised — like Monday's statement — upon process and not upon his personal opposition to same-sex couples' marriages, which he has continued to maintain in his bid for reelection.
When the trial court ruled against Christie in September, for example, he did not defend "traditional marriage" or something similar. Instead, he looked to process, with a spokesman saying, "Gov. Christie has always maintained that he would abide by the will of the voters on the issue of marriage equality and called for it to be on the ballot this Election Day. Since the legislature refused to allow the people to decide expeditiously, we will let the Supreme Court make this constitutional determination."
Christie, however, is a contender for president in 2016, and his decision to soft-pedal his defense as one about process and not one about "protecting traditional marriage" is a marked contrast for an elected Republican Party official with presidential aspirations. Back in 1996, when Hawaii courts looked like they would be requiring the state to allow same-sex couples to marry, Republicans in Congress pushed through the Defense of Marriage Act in an attempt to score political points on the issue and help Bob Dole's presidential campaign. In 2004, in response to the backlash against marriage equality in Massachusetts, President George W. Bush endorsed an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to ban same-sex couples from marrying.
Now, though, Christie has signaled — at least for him — that things could look different in 2016.
With the Supreme Court having struck down the federal ban on recognizing same-sex couples' marriages in the Defense of Marriage Act this June and seven states in the past year having joined the six states and the District of Columbia with marriage equality, Christie was faced with the dilemma of the Republican Party today. Although the party base — as reflected in a party platform that supports a constitutional amendment banning same-sex couples from marrying — still opposes most LGBT rights, the trajectory of public support for those same rights is increasingly clear to the people who fund and run Republican campaigns.
Christie chose to straddle the divide, fighting marriage equality — but not too hard — and maintaining his personal opposition — but not too loudly. And, eventually, he gave in. Christie's move echoes House Republicans, who similarly gave up defending laws — in their case, DOMA-like statutes — after it was clear they would be unconstitutional but before final court rulings declaring them so.
Christie's state is now the 14th state with marriage equality, along with D.C., representing 175 electoral votes. By the end of the month, Illinois, Hawaii, and New Mexico could join their ranks, bringing the number to 17 — and bringing the electoral vote count to more than 200.
With the electoral math for anyone planning on running for president three years from now changing on this issue monthly, Christie came as close to taking no position on the issue as someone who is the governor of a state in the middle of a marriage equality fight could take. And yet, by 2016, that turn away from seeking to win elections on the politics of opposing LGBT rights, as subtle as Christie's move was on Monday, could look very smart indeed.
Update: This article was updated to include reference to House Republicans' moves on marriage-related federal laws this summer.