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Chris Christie Is Still A Viable 2016 Candidate

Chris Christie Victory Speech 2013

In the three months since the so-called “Bridgegate” scandal, in which New Jersey officials closed of lanes on the George Washington Bridge for reasons that nobody has been able to quite figure out yet, broke Chris Christie has seen his political stock plummet. Throughout 2013, thanks both to the national attention that he received in the wake of Hurricane Sandy and his historically impressive re-election victory, the New Jersey Governor’s name was at the top of everyone’s list of potential candidates for the 2016 Republican nomination for President. By wide margins, he out-polled all of his fellow potential 2016 candidates in nationwide polling, as well as in polling in first-in-the-nation primary state New Hampshire. He was also the only potential Republican candidate who was competitive with Hillary Clinton in head-to-head polling. While much of Christie’s performance in the polls was likely due to name recognition, his high numbers, along with his record in a deeply blue state like New Jersey, made the Presidential talk inevitable.

All of that changed once the “Bridgegate” allegations cam  e out, though. Christie’s poll numbers, both inside New Jersey and nationally, fell significantly. While the Governor remains a strong contender in polls of potential 2016 candidates, it’s fairly obvious that Christie is not the “star” that he was just a few months ago. Partly in response to Christie’s stumbles of late, we’ve seen the “establishment” wing of the GOP begin to look elsewhere for a candidate to rally around. Most prominently, that attention has turned former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who seems to be more open about running for President than he ever has in the past.  At the same time, though, there’s still a lot of time left before the race for the GOP nomination begins and, as Sean Trende notes, Chris Christie shouldn’t be counted out of the fight by any means:

 What this scandal has done is remove the more or less bipartisan support for Christie that emerged in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.  But that’s mostly inevitable.  We saw this happen to John McCain in 2008 once he became the face of the GOP, and we’re seeing it happen to Hillary Clinton today.

The one danger to Christie is that some smoking gun will emerge implicating him in the scandal. This is where the much-disparaged review of the case by the law firm of Gibson Dunn & Crutcher actually has some relevance.  I think many analysts missed the point.  This wasn’t a review to convince the public of Christie’s innocence — they are far too tuned out and distrustful of lawyers to buy into it.

What this was about was the “invisible primary” going on among donors, politicians and party apparatchiks.  This primary exists to line up sufficient endorsements and fundraising to compete in the real primary. What the report is saying to these donors — all of whom know the firm — is “We’re a top-tier law firm without a strong dog in this fight, and a lot to lose in terms of our reputation. Guys, there isn’t a smoking gun.”

This doesn’t mean that such a document isn’t hiding somewhere that the firm missed. But it really is of a fair degree of significance. The report means that we should be surprised if such a document emerges, but we should also bear in mind that surprising things happen all the time in document discovery — I once found a cache of documents in a coat closet at a client’s office, and of course there’s this. More importantly, that was certainly the message received by the donor class.  That matters.

At the end of the day, “Bridgegate” is a bad fact for Christie. It will certainly feature in 30-second ads.  It also effectively sucks up all of the governor’s “free time,” freezing his campaign in place and preventing him from laying the sort of groundwork that Rand Paul and Jeb Bush are putting in place.

But these are really just two of many problems, ranging from his relative liberalism on some key issues to his weight to his “Jersey” demeanor, which really will matter somewhat in the Midwest. But no candidate comes to an election with a perfect resume — certainly not Bill Clinton, certainly not George W. Bush, and certainly not Barack Obama (if I’d said in early 2006 that John McCain would be the GOP nominee and Obama the Democratic one, most analysts would have predicted a GOP win).

The “Bridgegate” investigation remains ongoing, but there has yet to be any evidence that the Governor had any direct knowledge of or involvement in the decision to close the lanes on the GW Bridge. Nonetheless, with a joint legislative committee still conducting an investigation and a U.S. Attorney still investigating the matter, it is far too soon to say that the scandal is behind him. As Trende says, there could be some document out there that could harm him legally. More importantly, as we’ve seen in the polls, the political damage has already been done. To a large degree, “Bridgegate” has ended one of the strongest selling points that a Christie campaign would have had, his ability to appeal to voters across party lines and within demographic groups that Republicans have had difficulty with for some time, such as women, African-Americans, and Latinos. As Allahpundit notes, the scandal, or whatever you want to call it, also pretty much put an end to the idea of Christie as a different kind of politician. It also undercuts the image of competence that Christie had come to have in his first term as Governor. Assuming that the Govenror’s version of events is correct, then one of his chief aides conspired with the head of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (again, for reasons that remain unexplained) and the Governor didn’t know anything about it. That’s going to raise questions about his governing style and his management style, something that even Christie admitted in the marathon press conference he held on this matter back on January 9th. If he does end up running in 2016, then Governor Christie is going to need to find a way to reinvent his public image in the wake of what is, in the end, an inexplicably dumb scandal.

Notwithstanding all of this, of course, it is way too early to count Christie out of the 2016 race. As noted, there has yet to be any evidence developed that indicates that Christie was aware of any pre-existing plan to close bridge lanes, or that this was part of some kind of retribution for political slights that he set in motion. Unless something like that does surface, Christie will emerge from this “scandal” bruised but not defeated. Indeed, it’s worth remembering, as Trende points out, that Christie’s leads in the polls prior to January weren’t exactly overwhelming. For the most part, he lead candidates like Rand Paul and Ted Cruz by a handful of percentage points in the preference polls. Given that the fall of 2013 was far too soon to be declaring anyone a presumptive nominee, it was inevitable that he was going take a hit in the polls at some point. In that sense, “Bridgegate” may actually end up helping Christie in  a way because he got that big fall from grace out of the way early on in the process and, notwithstanding that fall, he still remains politically strong. More importantly, while the scandal has arguably undercut many of Christie’s biggest selling points, he still remains the same politician he always was and, as recent media appearances have shown, he remains the same politician he always was. Given that, he’s likely to be considered a top contender if he does enter the race.

Even before “Bridgegate” came to light, there were never any guarantees about Chris Christie’s political future. There are no guarantees today either. However, it would be mistaken to count Chris Christie out just yet.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. beth says:

    What this was about was the “invisible primary” going on among donors, politicians and party apparatchiks. This primary exists to line up sufficient endorsements and fundraising to compete in the real primary. What the report is saying to these donors — all of whom know the firm — is “We’re a top-tier law firm without a strong dog in this fight, and a lot to lose in terms of our reputation. Guys, there isn’t a smoking gun.”

    Great, and he made the taxpayers of NJ pay $1 million for it. Great fiscal conservative, my ass. Just another Republican grifter, just like Bundy.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 12 Thumb down 0

  2. James Pearce says:

    However, it would be mistaken to count Chris Christie out just yet.

    I feel comfortable counting him out.

    Conservatives were wary of him before Bridgegate. Some liberals (myself included) were interested. But now…..I think the wariness on the right has only grown and the liberals (myself included) are no longer interested.

    Stick a fork in him. He’s done.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 14 Thumb down 0

  3. James in Silverdale, WA says:

    Christie remains viable to the extent any of the people posting as GOP 2016 candidates remain viable. Whoever gets the nod will have the same Base Problems McCain and Romney had before him (who thinks it will be Gov Martinez? It will be a “him”). Add the same tired policies that arm even the ghost of Walter Mondale with 250 EVs before we start.

    Which is not to downplay Democratic vulnerabilities. The economy is far from ideal, and the enabling of plutocrats continues. Nor have the last chapters of culpability for our continued spending on the Terror State, Inc. been written. The latter avenue is a sure way for conservatives to regain relevance, so hintity-hint-hint. Alas, you’ll have to divorce GWB and then call the police right away.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  4. Rafer Janders says:

    As noted, there has yet to be any evidence developed that indicates that Christie was aware of any pre-existing plan to close bridge lanes, or that this was part of some kind of retribution for political slights that he set in motion.

    Umm, there’s literally no other explanation than retribution for political slights that he set in motion. They didn’t close the lanes for fun, after all.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 1

  5. gVOR08 says:

    In the last two cycles the establishment types were able to buy the nomination for their boy. The TP seems weaker now. Every reason to believe they’ll buy the nomination again. EXCEPT that it’s not at all clear who their boy is. Was Christie. Trende’s analysis of the point to Christie’s BS investigation is no doubt correct, but he failed to note any evidence it worked. Is his fund raising up?

    With Christie out, attention shifted to Bush. IIRC it was Booman who had the good analysis of Bush’s situation. His best move is to stay out this cycle and do everything he can to scuttle Christie, Rubio or any other establishment candidate. Let the base nominate a crazy and learn the lesson. Then for ’20 they’ll be willing to settle down and nominate Bush without forcing him through the clown act that killed McCain and Romney. Memory of W will have faded further. Jeb will be younger than he will in ’24. And there’s always the hope President H Clinton will screw up or suffer bad luck.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 2

  6. AL-aMEDA says:

    Base conservatives see him as a RINO, so I don’t see him doing well.

    That said, as long as he is in the race we’ll get a fair measure of the RINO vote within the GOP.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  7. Woody says:

    Gov. Christie’s major constituency was the Beltway media. Call him McCain 2.0 – a politician who made noises that seemed to deviate slightly from the GOP playbook when it suited his personal interests. The courtiers (Scarborough above all) were thrilled with the way he punched hippies and schoolteachers, and the fact he easily won re-election (as an incumbent!) in a Democratic state gave them cover to award him Bipartisan Man.

    He did show promising potential to be a plutocrat pleaser, but the GOP base has never trusted him. He’ll return on the efforts of his media fanboys, but the base sees him as a discount Romney.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  8. dazedandconfused says:

    It’s too early to count out Herman Cain as well. He did a better job selling pizza than Chris did of managing his highly corrupt and disloyal staff. (re: Cain Mutiny)

    Christie’s record of running the New Jersey executive office can now only hope to attain the status of “hot mess”. He is going to give exactly what as his qualification to run the executive office of the entire nation? His ability to insulate himself from the actions of the people he hires?

    It’s over.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

  9. Sejanus says:

    Doug wrote that “there has yet to be any evidence that the Governor had any direct knowledge of or involvement in the decision to close the lanes on the GW Bridge.” I won’t argue the merits of this statement, but I will say that Doug must realize that many voters think otherwise. Would you let your children be babysitted by a person who has never been convicted of child molestation, just tried and acquitted of it?

    Even without direct evidence that bridgegate occurred with Christie’s approval/knowledge, the mere possibility that it did raises concern. Let us suppose that you are swing voter in a battleground state who’s not loyal to any party and is therefore persuadable. Are you going to let a man who might have very well ordered a bridge to be closed down as an act of political retaliation to take command of the armed forces and intelligence services?

    My diagnosis: due to bridgegate Christie’s cross party appeal in 2016 (presuming he will win the nomination) will not be greater than that of any other potential Republican candidate and probably lesser, and his reception by voters with no strong party loyalty will be lukewarm at best. As if this wasn’t enough to ruin his chances in his home state, the inevitable right wing turn that will go through during the nomination process also needs to be taken into account. Jersey will not be competitive in 2016 no matter what.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  10. J.Kenedy says:

    @James Pearce:

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  11. J.Kenedy says:

    Christie like the other Tea Party nuts, is working for the 1% 24/7. Plus, he’s a major league bully and punk. He needs to go along with Scotty Walker and the rest. They’re Anti American and anti worker rights. We MUST do better than these cretins. By the way, by and large, I’m a republican leaning person.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

  12. An Interested Party says:

    The “Bridgegate” investigation remains ongoing, but there has yet to be any evidence that the Governor had any direct knowledge of or involvement in the decision to close the lanes on the GW Bridge.

    I’m sure something similar was said about Jon Corzine at one point…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  13. J.Kenedy says:

    Notice how Christie, Walker et al are finding all things wrong with unions, the Middle Class and the benefits for the poor while the top 10% keep getting richer and richer with no acountability at all ?? The whole fiasco of The Great Recession was ALL because of Wall Street greed yet nobody was jailed of course. Rather than deal with the truth, The Tea Party nuts are focused like laser beams on the poor and working class, foisting “Austerity” on them. It’s all a scam and “The People” need to fight this anti american crap or we’ll be facing a quasi dictatorship in the USA. The country will be a giant WalMart while the corporate elite control everybody like serfs.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

  14. Robin Cohen says:

    @James Pearce: @James Pearce: I agree. If the Republicans are dumb enough to nominate Christie, they will lose again. Jon Huntsman is the best Candidate they’ve got. Clinton will beat Christie and I would hate to see her as President.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  15. Sejanus says:

    @Robin Cohen: People from Obama’s campaign think the same way.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  16. Robin Cohen says:

    @Sejanus: I would have voted for Huntsman. He was the only honest guy in the race. If he runs again, I will vote for him. The only Democrat I would vote for is Elizabeth Warren. No other potential candidates have any scruples about their agenda or who/what they represent.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 2

  17. Eric Florack says:

    He may well win the nomination.
    But the rank and file will never go for it.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  18. Robin Cohen says:

    @Eric Florack: That’s because he has integrity and would not bow to Adelson or Koch. It’s a shame because he’s a good man who would put the needs of the country ahead of corrupt money interests.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0