We return to our occasional series of "Wildly Early 2016 Presidential Speculation" articles, because of Washington's current obsession over how much damage Chris Christie has done to his chances to become the next Republican nominee for president. Has Christie hurt his chances beyond all repair? Or will (as some of his supporters are beginning to claim) the entire episode actually help out Christie, two years from now?
In my own personal view, which is based on not much more than gut feeling at this point (since, once again, it is ridiculously early to even be engaging in 2016 speculation), I don't think Christie has either hurt or helped himself much at all. Now, before I attempt to justify that claim, two caveats are in order. For the purposes of discussion, I am going to assume that no second shoe will drop in the scandal -- that no smoking gun emerges pointing right at Governor Chris Christie. Sorry for the mixed metaphor, but in our speculation here we're going to assume that no further information is revealed which damages Christie's chances even further -- a rather large assumption, which is why I'm explicitly pointing it out up front. Secondly, please keep in mind that when I say "Christie's chances" what I am specifically talking about is "Christie's chances to win the Republican nomination." It's wildly early to predict even that, but it is way too early to begin assessing the general election itself. So we're not even going to touch the "could he still win the White House?" question at all.
Many on the left seem to be currently overstating the damage that has already happened to Christie's chances to win the nomination. "Christie's Toast!" would be the theme of such analysis, in fact. This, it seems to me, is a bit overstated, for a number of reasons. The first is the notoriously short attention span of the American voter. The bridge scandal is going to be ancient news by the time the primary season rolls around in early 2016. Two years is an absolute eternity in politics, folks. While New Jersey Democrats are going to investigate the heck out of the scandal for many months to come, if no further bombshell revelations emerge, then eventually the story will fade (at least on the national level).
The second reason Christie may not be as toasty as some are now assuming is how the whole thing may actually play in Peoria (so to speak). Using a traffic jam as political retribution is an ugly thing, pundits assume, because everybody hates traffic -- it's a universal issue and nobody is on the side of "traffic jams are a good thing." But this may overstate the resonance with most voters. Outside of metropolitan areas, traffic isn't as big an issue, to begin with. Anyone not used to commuting over a bridge as busy as the George Washington Bridge is going to have a different view of what happened than those who fight such traffic on a daily basis. Beyond the rural/urban split, how badly are Republican primary voters going to feel about a traffic jam experienced in a blue state, really?
Which brings me to the heart of my argument. Because in assessing the damage to a possible Christie 2016 candidacy, many are making the mistake of only looking at his chances in the general election. But to get to the general election, Christie has to win the Republican nomination. And the electorate for these primary contests is going to be radically different than the general election voting pool.
What were Christie's chances of winning the nomination before this scandal broke? That is a tough question to answer, because of all the variables involved. Who else will be running? What will the big political stories be? There are many unanswerable questions, at this early date. Assumptions must be made to even begin to assess Christie's chances of winning the nomination. Some of these are easier to make than others, though. It's a pretty safe bet that Christie, should he run, will center his campaign around being "straight-talking" and "getting things done." Also, in a secondary way, around electability -- Christie will be making the case "I've got the best chance to win the general election, and aren't Republicans tired of losing at the national level?"
He'll be making this case against a field that can be roughly divided along the current schism between the Establishment Republican faction and the Tea Party absolutists. There will likely be a few other candidates also vying for the nomination who have big Establishment Republican backing, and there will definitely be a few candidates with stellar Tea Party credentials. Christie's path to victory will consist of being a lot more charismatic and exciting than all the other Establishment candidates, which really shouldn't be all that hard to accomplish, when you think about it. What chances does someone like Jon Huntsman have against Christie, after all? As for the Tea Party, Christie will undoubtedly try the same "divide and conquer" strategy which worked so well for Mitt Romney. If there is only one viable Tea Party candidate in the race, Christie may have a problem. But the safe money is on there being multiple Tea Party candidates, all trying to be more extreme than the others. If the Tea Party vote in the primaries is split, Christie could pick up delegates almost by default from Republican voters who want a truly viable national candidate.
These voters are the ones that Christie is going to target as his base. And the bridge scandal isn't going to matter much to them (that's my guess, at any rate). Christie's bully nature is going to win him what might be called the "macho vote." Anyone who doubts the strength of this demographic would do well to remember Arnold Schwarzenegger getting re-elected governor in one of the bluest states in the nation. "I want someone in office who will kick ass" is more powerful politically than a lot of inside-the-Beltway types realize. The bridge scandal actually helps Christie with this faction of voters, when you think about it.
The Republican primary electorate contains other groups, though. But again, remember that this scandal will be old news by the time the primaries get under way. Right-wing media is already focusing more on how Christie handled the scandal than the scandal itself. This can be summed up as "Christie took swift action, fired people, and answered all the media's questions." If no further dirt is uncovered, then Christie's press conference last week will be seen as the final word on the subject for a lot of folks. And this, too, plays well with a certain segment of the Republican base. Christie will have shown "leadership" and "accountability," which plays very well indeed in states like Iowa and New Hampshire. "Mistakes were made, and Christie cleaned them up" will be the theme used to court these voters.
Which is why I really don't think Christie has done much damage to his chances for winning the Republican presidential nomination in two years. The only tarnish that might stick to him is in the area of electability. Voters who target their choices on who might be best expected to give the Democratic nominee a run for her (or his... ahem) money may be convinced that swing voters will be less inclined to vote for Christie because of the scandal. But that's a fairly subtle thing, and by the time the primaries are held there should be plenty of polling to prove this point one way or another. Christie may still show the best chances in the general election of the entire Republican field, even with the scandal in his past.
Other Republican candidates can, of course, be expected to try to exploit Christie's weaknesses, especially during the debates. But it's a risky strategy for them to use, for two reasons. The first is they'll be taking the side of the (gasp!) liberal media, and the second is that anyone who directly attacks Christie in a debate is very likely going to get a smackdown in response. It's in Christie's nature to give a full-throated defense of his own record, which should be on full display in debate season.
Chris Christie may or may not have fatally hurt his chances to win the presidential election because of the bridge scandal. I leave it for others to look that far into the future. But when it comes to assessing his chances to win the Republican nomination, I really can't see that he's hurt himself politically much at all. Republican primary voters love a good story about sticking it to Democrats, after all, meaning that the entire scandal is seen differently by these voters than by East Coast elites. More moderate (and less macho) voters will see the scandal as an exercise in executive responsibility after the fact -- the swift firings and transparent nature of Christie's press conference may be all that such voters remember in two years' time. And finally, if any of Christie's Republican opponents try to use the scandal against him in a debate, I would bet good money that two years from now Christie will come up with a dandy answer to any such accusations -- likely such a snappy answer that it will become the highlight of such a debate the next day. All of this adds up to Christie still having just as good a chance of securing the Republican nomination now as he did before the bridge scandal broke.
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