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Chris Christie's 'Shadow Primary' Problem

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It is probably way too soon to start speculating on how New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) will fare in the 2016 presidential elections. After all, the whole "Bridgegate" scandal still has healthy enough legs to run around the track a little while longer, and the possibility of career-dooming revelations remains extant.

But who can wait! Is Christie doomed, right this very minute? And can the matter be discussed thoughtfully and responsibly? Sure. In fact, here is one case in which what's happening in 2014 actually matters in 2016.

Of course, if you're looking at what actual voters are likely to do, hundreds of days from now, you might be left with the impression that the proverbial "game" has not experienced its clichéd "change" just yet. Early polls have yet to show a dramatic shift in the public's opinion of Christie. In fact, while initial polling of New Jersey voters found his favorability rating took an eight-point hit, it nevertheless remains quite high: "55 percent of likely New Jersey voters now hold a favorable opinion of Christie, while 44 percent view him unfavorably."

And nationally, the scandal doesn't yet appear to have created much downward momentum for Christie. A HuffPost/YouGov poll conducted this week found his favorability rating to be "virtually unchanged compared to other surveys conducted over the course of the last month." Those results neatly dovetail with a similar survey conducted by Pew Research. All of which suggests that in the immediate aftermath of the scandal, Christie's got the opportunity to survive and potentially thrive.

Of course, the operative phrase here is "in the immediate aftermath of the scandal." Depending on what subsequent investigations uncover, Christie's problems could deepen. But there's still a good chance that the scandal will remain a submerged memory in the minds of many voters who are, at the moment, disengaged from the ongoing hullabaloo. Come 2016, Christie's primary opponents are likely to do everything in their power to bring that submerged memory to the surface.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves. Christie doesn't actually have a 2016 problem. What he's got is a 2014 problem. Because as Matthew Yglesias reminds us today, the "shadow primary" for president is happening right now.

It's happening right now in the sense that in order to win, any candidate needs to first gain the allegiance (or at least nonhostility) of a wide range of elites outside his immediate political circle. House members from South Carolina. State senators from Iowa. Anti-abortion activists in New Hampshire. Talk radio hosts. Fox News executives. Donors. Lobbyists. State-level Chamber of Commerce chiefs. These people are paying attention right now, and they're thinking about who they want to back and who they want to bandwagon against. And there's just no way this bridge thing is making any of those people more likely to support Christie than they were six months ago. Republican elites are mostly looking to find a candidate who is both conservative, effective, and electable and this makes him look less electable and less effective without making him look more conservative. It's bad news.

Those elites had a pretty rough time of things back in 2012. But Mitt Romney, the candidate with the backlog of submerged memories, didn't. Going into the primary competition, everyone made a big deal about all of Romney's exploitable liabilities. He had conservative purity problems. He was a walking, talking weathervane, blowing whichever way the wind did on any particular day. He was the father of the hated Obamacare!

But with all those juicy targets, Romney managed to remain unscathed during the primary. In part, it was because of his under-appreciated ability to stay above the fray, and let the chorus of disapproval drown itself in acrimony. But his larger advantage was simply that his competitors were marginally competitive on their best days, and world historically awful on their worst.

That's why despite the fact that Romney's ascension to front-runner status was fairly tepidly received by the shadow primary keymasters, there was no migration to any of the declared alternatives. Rather, it led to the constant display of party elites begging other potential candidates on bended knee to jump into the race. This phenomenon persisted long after the simple physics of electoral politics made it impossible for any would-be contender to contemplate such a feat. (Ironically, the major beneficiary of all those "PLEASE PLEASE JUMP INTO THE RACE" prostrations was Chris Christie.)

But 2016 is shaping up as a different animal entirely. It's likely to be a buyers' market for GOP party elites in 2016, with lots of decent alternatives to Christie. As Yglesias points out, "You get to be quite choosy, so every stumble counts for a lot." When you consider that Christie is likely to draw competitors like Jeb Bush, Paul Ryan and Scott Walker, as opposed to Tim Pawlenty, Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain, there's no reason for party elites to be desperate or settle early.

READ THE WHOLE THING:
Bridgegate Is Hurting Christie's 2016 Ambitions Right Now [Moneybox @ Slate]

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