Sizing up Christie’s run for President
Now that Chris Christie has announced he is a Republican candidate for President, the question that is most often obviously asked is, “Can he win?” There are plenty of scenarios that can lead to starkly different answers. The second question that tends to follow is “Will he step down as governor?” That question appears to have been answered. But unless something seismic occurs, in the state or in the race, New Jersey is in for an unprecedented and complex time for at least the next eight months.
To win the nomination, an individual needs to rely on a number of fleeting factors: money, personality, experience, determination, message, timing and luck. It would take far more than a magazine article to properly analyze how Christie shapes up to these factors. So let’s take a few key points that lie ahead of the campaign.
The Christie haters and the New Jersey press have obviously made up their minds about his chances. Many articles following his announcement, including some from national media outlets, refer to the campaign as a “long shot” or “four years too late.” But in the bright light of political reality, that may be a bit premature.
The most important factor, outside of the candidate themselves, is money. Candidates will raise, and spend, tens of millions of dollars each the next few months. But candidates who lose in early primaries will see that that their donors will move on to give to others they perceive can win. When the money dries up, candidates quickly drop out.
There is little doubt Christie will be able to raise significant sums of money to stay in the race well into 2016. A negative story, a bad debate performance or a loss in an early primary tends to dry up donations and that almost instantly ends their campaign. But Christie is a great fundraiser and he has developed a team of mega-rich donors and a “Super PAC” that practically assures he will not run out of money during his race. Access to campaign cash means he will continue to travel, run ads and push his message to compete with his negative polling numbers.
The current polls seem to indicate that Christie is a second-tier candidate, but they are in reality a snapshot in the past and often they teach candidates how to fix themselves or hurt their opponents enough to move up. Plus, polls on Christie’s duties in New Jersey take into account Democrats and independents who have soured on their prior acceptance, and they represent a group that is mainly irrelevant in a GOP Primary. In many ways, political spin can be employed to use those numbers to build the Christie message for President – that he doesn’t need to be loved to be effective and that he is just what the country needs now.
We are far too close to the situation to see the entire picture. The Presidential race won’t actually get to us until the Republican Primary in June 2016. But the real race for the nomination begins in February and March when voters go to the polls in for primary elections in Iowa, New Hampshire and other key states. And that is important to remember. Chris Christie is no longer speaking to a New Jersey audience, and he is not at all concerned if the Star-Ledger editorial board approves of him or whether public employees picket his appearances.
New Jersey residents need to remember who Chris Christie is trying to impress. GOP primary voters tend to be more conservative than the average New Jersey voter, and they were not paying attention to whether the governor called pensions a “sacred trust” or whether he intentionally underfunded the pension system. So a protest from New Jersey employees is only going to set the governor up nicely to roll into his stump speech about “telling it like it is” and “making hard decisions.” And that, quite honestly, is going to drive New Jersey public employees to the brink of insanity.
There is no question, regardless of how one feels about him, that the governor has a gift for public speaking and for conveying authority and conviction. That doesn’t mean what he says is accurate, but in Presidential politics accuracy is less effective than the delivery and the message itself. Compared to the field of more than a dozen GOP candidates, Chris Christie is not going to lose a debate on style unless he decides to mock, ridicule or personally attack a fellow candidate. Other candidates, however, know he can be baited to attack and some of them are likely dreaming for a sit-down-and-shut-up moment. That may work, to some effect, in Jersey but it simply won’t be viewed as Presidential in a Primary campaign.
Christie’s opponents have lots of ammo. The economy here lags behind other states. He has fluctuated his positions on some core conservative GOP issues. He is far too close to Democrats for some, and I am sure the picture of him hugging President Obama after Hurricane Sandy hit is going to find its way into mailboxes and on TV if he starts moving up the ranks. That is even before you mention the “Bridgegate” issue. And he isn’t running against Barbara Buono this time around, so rest assured if opposing candidates need to use their opposition research on him, they will hit the governor where it hurts.
Christie’s chances to win the GOP nomination hinge in many ways on winning an early primary, notably New Hampshire. If he gets blown out there, the national media will immediately write him off and voters in other primary states will look elsewhere. Which means he will probably be in New Hampshire, and other early primary states, as much as he is in New Jersey. That is necessary for his run for office but probably not conducive to governing here. Christie has given every indication, publicly and privately, that he has no intention to leave office early. Nobody, therefore, should be looking for him to call it a day in Trenton and move on.
With so many candidates in the race there is a great deal of opportunity to either break free or fall behind the pack. While the odds still don’t favor him winning the nomination, we are really only in the pre-game warm-up to the event itself. Which means there will be a lot less governing and a lot more politics driving the agenda in the state for the near future.