When I returned from a trip to China almost exactly eight years ago, I found my inbox full of requests from editors to write about two huge stories that unfolded while I was gone: the Supreme Court’s decision to legalize same-sex marriage and the emergence of a surprising candidate who entered the race after my departure, Donald J. Trump.
Needless to say, my inbox this week after a couple of weeks off in the Pacific Northwest does not have nearly as many requests as it did in the wake of the Obergefell decision and Mr. Trump’s trip down the escalator. But the requests I do have nonetheless center on a similar set of topics: a major Supreme Court decision, this time to end affirmative action programs, and two upstart candidates who weren’t receiving a lot of attention before I left, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Chris Christie.
Court gives Democrats some cover
As I wrote at the time, the Supreme Court’s decision to make same-sex marriage a fundamental right was probably politically advantageous for Republicans. Yes, the court decision was popular and the Republican position on same-sex marriage was increasingly unpopular, but that’s precisely why that decision did them a favor: It all but removed the issue from political discourse, freeing Republicans from an issue that might have otherwise hobbled them.
In theory, something similar can be said for the court’s affirmative action ruling, but this time with the decision helping Democrats. Here again, the court is taking a popular position that potentially frees a political party — this time the Democrats — from an issue that could hurt it, including with the fast-growing group of Asian American voters.
It’s worth noting that this would be nothing like how the court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade helped Democrats. Then, the court ruling sparked a backlash that energized liberals and gave Democrats a new campaign issue with appeal to the base and moderates alike. If the most recent case were to help Democrats, it would do so in nearly the opposite manner: To take advantage of the ruling politically, Democrats might need to stop talking about it.
It was fairly easy for Republican elites to stop talking about same-sex marriage in 2015, as many were already keen to move on from a losing political fight. It is not as obvious that Democratic elites are keen to move away from the fight over affirmative action or whether they even can, given their base’s passion for racial equality.
About those other candidates
Obviously, any analogy between the first few weeks of Mr. Trump’s campaign and the slow emergence of Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Christie will be much more strained. For one, Mr. Christie and Mr. Kennedy were already making ripples in the race when I left, and I did think I might need to write about them at some point. In contrast, Mr. Trump couldn’t have been further from my mind in mid-June 2015. Upon hearing about his bid on my return, I thought he might fade so quickly that I would never even have to write about him. Whatever you think about Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Christie, there’s not much reason to think they simply might go “pop.”
Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Christie don’t have much in common — other than their unequivocally low chance of actually winning — but they have, in their own ways, become factors in the race simply by being the best or even only vessel for expressing explicit opposition to their party’s front-runners, Joe Biden and Mr. Trump.
Usually, willingness to oppose a front-runner isn’t enough to distinguish an aspiring candidate. This year, it is. No current or former elected official has challenged the incumbent president thus far in the Democratic primary. And while many prominent Republicans appear willing to enter the race against Mr. Trump, few appear willing to directly, forcefully and consistently attack him. When they do attack him — as Ron DeSantis recently did for supporting L.G.B.T.Q. people a decade ago — it’s often from the right, and not on the issues that animate the base of any hypothetical not-Trump coalition: relatively moderate, highly educated Republicans.
Of the two, Mr. Christie is probably the one who is most effectively fulfilling this demand for direct opposition to the front-runner. There may not be a large constituency for anti-Trump campaigning, but it exists and Mr. Christie is feeding it what it wants. Just as important, directly attacking Mr. Trump ensures a steady diet of media coverage.
All of this makes Mr. Christie a classic factional candidate, the kind that doesn’t usually win presidential nominations but can nonetheless play an important role in the outcome of the campaign. If he gains the allegiance of those outright opposed to Mr. Trump, he’ll deny an essential not-Trump voting bloc to another Republican who might have broader appeal throughout the party — say, Mr. DeSantis. This is most likely to play out in New Hampshire, where fragmentary survey data (often from Republican-aligned firms) shows Mr. Christie creeping up into the mid-to-high single digits.
Mr. Kennedy is a more complicated case. With the help of a famous family name, he’s nudged ahead of Marianne Williamson for the minor distinction of being Mr. Biden’s top rival in Democratic primary polls. On average, Mr. Kennedy polls in the mid-teens, with some surveys still showing him in the single digits and one poll showing him above 20 percent. That’s more than Mr. Christie can say.
But unlike Mr. Christie, Mr. Kennedy is not exactly feeding Biden skeptics what they want. Instead, he’s advancing conspiracy theories, appearing on right-wing media and earning praise from conservative figures. And unlike Mr. Trump, whose most ardent opposition is probably toward the center, Mr. Biden is probably most vulnerable to a challenge from the ideological left. This is not what Mr. Kennedy is offering, and it’s reflected in the polls. While Times/Siena polling last summer showed Mr. Biden most vulnerable among “very liberal” voters and on progressive issues, Mr. Kennedy actually fares much better among self-described moderates than liberals. He doesn’t clearly fare better among younger Democrats than older ones, despite Mr. Biden’s longstanding weakness among the younger group.
It’s too early to say whether Mr. Kennedy’s modest foothold among moderate and conservative Democrats reflects a constituency for anti-modernist, anti-establishment liberalism, or whether Mr. Kennedy’s family name is simply getting him farther among less engaged Democrats, who are likelier to identify as moderate. Either way, his ability to play an important role in the race is limited by embracing conservatives and conspiratorial positions, even if he may continue to earn modest support in the race because of the absence of another prominent not-Biden option.