Can Christie Bounce Back After The Bridgegate Indictments? Probably Not
Aides to Governor Chris Christie apparently think there's still a way he can run a credible campaign for President, but it seems unlikely.
Notwithstanding the fact that three close allies were indicted in connection with the so-called “Bridgegate” scandal, and that one of those allies has plead guilty and is cooperating with Federal prosecutors, Chris Christie’s closest political aides are still holding out hope that they can revive his political career and a potential run for the White House in 2016:
Around 7:30 a.m., as an audience of technology executives started streaming through the ballroom doors of a Ritz-Carlton Hotel in suburban Virginia on Friday, Chris Christie’s iPhone buzzed with the grim news he has awaited for 16 months.
Federal charges were coming in the bizarre case of traffic and revenge with which he had become synonymous.
Mr. Christie, the governor of New Jersey, consulted with advisers, adjusted his jet-black suit and gamely walked onto a stage before 300 guests eating yogurt parfait and almond croissants. He recited statistics about Social Security and Medicare costs and projected the air of a man thoroughly unbothered by the swirling legal drama back in New Jersey, which he left unmentioned.
But behind the scenes, his aides, his allies and even his wife were mobilizing, working the phones and blasting out memos to supporters, trying to hold on to whatever chance Mr. Christie had to make a run at the presidency, according to interviews.
Over the next few hours, Mary Pat Christie called donors, trying to offer reassurance that everything was still on track and encouraging them to read her husband’s speech on overhauling the federal entitlement system
Mr. Christie himself, joined by top aides, reached out to longtime financial supporters, like the billionaires Kenneth Langone and Stanley Druckenmiller, to talk through what he saw as the limited scope of the indictment.
And Mr. Christie’s political action committee emailed talking points for loyal backers to deliver to the news media, framing the guilty plea of David Wildstein, a former Christie ally, and the indictment of the governor’s former deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, and his appointee, Bill Baroni, as a moment of vindication.
“Key messages,” the talking points read. “Today’s announcement reinforces what the governor has said since Day 1.” Mr. Christie, they said, “had no knowledge or involvement in the planning, motivation, authorization or execution of the decision to realign lanes on the George Washington Bridge.”
In call after call, they squeezed whatever optimism they could from an ugly day, calling the legal charges the “best possible outcome in a bad situation.”
But amid the bustle, there was an absorption of a new reality for the governor and those closest to him: that his bid for the White House seems increasingly far-fetched. A political team long characterized by its self-assuredness now sounds strikingly subdued, sobered and, realistic about his odds.
In two dozen interviews over the past 24 hours, many of the most trusted allies and advisers to Mr. Christie acknowledged that winning the Republican nomination required a domino-like series of stumbles from his rivals and an unlikely breakthrough for him.
Christie’s camp was no doubt pleased, then, when Alex Isenstadt argued in Politico that Friday’s developments really weren’t all that bad for Christie:
Even as the prospect of upcoming trials for the Bridgegate conspirators threatens to keep the scandal in the headlines, some see a path forward for the governor.
“It’s never a good thing when you’re running for president and your name and the word ‘indictment’ are mentioned in the same article,” said Katie Packer Gage, a political consultant who served as a top aide on Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign. “But I think he’ll be able to weather this and put it past him.”
“This is a boost for him,” said Charlie Black, a longtime Washington, D.C. lobbyist who advised John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign. “I expect him to be competitive.”
Still, there are dangers. As part of a plea deal, David Wildstein, the former Port Authority official who signed off on the plan to shut down lanes, has been cooperating with investigators. Bearded and gaunt, Wildstein stood before cameras on Friday as his attorney, Alan Zegas, suggested cryptically that information about Christie’s role could yet emerge. “There is a lot more that will come out,” he said. (The author previously worked for Wildstein and wrote about it here)
What Wildstein is telling federal authorities remains perhaps the biggest mystery in the case. Once a top political blogger in the state, he’s kept a low profile since resigning from the administration more than a year ago, changing his cell phone number and talking to few. “He’s gone underground,” said one former friend.
Should he remain legally untouched, Christie still must deal with lingering fallout.
FiveThirtyEight’s Harry Enten, however, is having none of it, and arguing that whatever hope Christie may have had for a 2016 Presidential bid is pretty much dead:
Whether or not Christie is ever charged, his position in the presidential race is already even worse than we thought it was at the beginning of the year. In January, I found that, given his name recognition, Christie’s net favorability rating1 was 25 percentage points below what would be expected of a future nominee, based upon past nominees at this point in the cycle.
Based on live interview polls through mid-April, Christie is now 41 percentage points below what we would expect among Republican voters, considering how many Republicans can form an opinion of him.
There’s no precedent for a nominee who’s this well-known and this disliked. Christie’s net favorable rating stands at just +3 percentage points, according to an average of live-interview polls conducted in 2015, despite 76 percent of Republicans being able to form an opinion of him. Jeb Bush is not in great shape either, but he’s less than two standard deviations away from our expectation. Christie is slightly more than four standard deviations.
Christie also remains unpopular in both Iowa and New Hampshire. He has an ideological record that is out-of-step with the Republican base. Add this latest Bridge-gate news to Christie’s disadvantages, and it becomes pretty much impossible to see how he can come back.
Enten’s numbers are hard to argue with, and his conclusion seems to me to be the most sound of most of the discussion I’ve seen about Christie’s future in the wake of the Bridgegate indictments. While one should ever discount the possibility of a political comeback, it now seems next to impossible for Christie to put together the kind of campaign that would actually have a realistic chance of succeeding. Even at the height of his political popularity, Christie faced huge obstacles if he chose to run for President simply because he was perceived as being out of step with the Republican base on several important political issues. What helped him keep his poll numbers outside New Jersey high back then was the public image he projected as Governor, which emphasized issues such as leadership, being plain spoken and blunt, and being competent. To a large degree, all of that was destroyed when it became known that three people with long associations with him had not only used their political power to engage in what remains a bizarre conspiracy to punish the Mayor of Fort Lee and that Christie apparently didn’t know anything about it. With that, the one thing that made Christie different from most anyone else in the race no longer existed, and his poll numbers have nosedived accordingly.
Looking at those numbers, it would seem that Christie’s position isn’t quite all that bad, but the reality becomes clear when you look at them in context. Nationally, Christie is in the middle of the pack with a 6.0% average from RealClearPolitics, but that’s far below where he was in December 2013, a month after he was re-elected and a month before the scandal broke, when he was at the top of the field at 20%. Christie is at the bottom of the field in Iowa with an average of 5.0%, and while his numbers in the Hawkeye State have never been great thanks, no doubt, due to the conservative nature of the Republican electorate there, there was a time when he was up near 9% and at least looking like a contender. In New Hampshire, Christie is averaging 7.3% in the Granite State, but that is well below the 17-18% he was getting in polls in late 2013. In South Carolina, Christie is at 6.3% in the polling average and while there doesn’t seem to be as much polling history out of the Palmetto State it’s quite clear that his numbers there have fallen as well. Finally, in what will be the biggest contest of the first month of the primary battle next year, Christie is averaging just 3,7% in the Sunshine State, which is quite a fall from the 14% he was at prior to Bridgegate. For almost any other candidate who has not even entered the race and potentially has access to big donors like Ken Langone, these wouldn’t be bad numbers, For Christie, who was once at the top of the field, though, they are pretty disastrous.
Christie has said that any decision on entering the Presidential race won’t come until late May or June, but the fact that the indictments have come down likely means that we’re close to a decision one way or the other. Personally, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Governor just took a pass on running.