The collapse of Chris Christie’s political fortunes is a tale that will require an author’s care and attention to detail to appreciate fully. A blue state governor who won his second term in office with over 60 percent of the vote, Christie was the subject of an intense presidential draft in 2012 as voters and GOP power brokers alike conceded that he represented the party’s best hope to defeat Barack Obama. Two years later, Christie now fails to charm the press as he once did. He is bitterly mistrusted by conservative voters, and he may not even run for the nomination to spare himself the embarrassment of a lackluster performance at the polls.
Last week, two former Christie aides, David Wildstein and Bridget Ann Kelly, were formally indicted for their roles in the closure of two lanes of the George Washington Bridge in the fall of 2013. The attorney for Christie appointee Bill Baroni, who pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges related to “Bridgegate,” insisted that Christie knew about the lane closures as they were happening in real time.
But investigators could never prove any link between the governor’s aides and the allegedly retributive “traffic study” on the bridge over the Hudson River. Christie may not be tainted by scandal himself, but his reputation is thoroughly tarnished. Even if the GOP presidential primary electorate believed that the political media’s saturation coverage of this scandal and its career-killing implications was politically motivated, many conservatives already regarded the governor with some suspicion. Due to his support for restrictions on gun ownership and his decision to expand Medicaid in New Jersey in accordance with the Affordable Care Act, the right has been looking askance at Christie even before his landslide 2013 reelection victory. Today, despite the Garden State governor’s potential for crossover appeal, Republicans have fully soured on Christie.
The anticipated Christie comeback that many believed would materialize when “Bridgegate” faded from memory,and the GOP took a favorable second look at the tough-talking governor never materialized. At this point, it doesn’t look like it ever will.
“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,” FiveThirtyEight’s Harry Enten declared. “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.”
New York Times reporters Maggie Haberman and Michael Barbaro report that Christie’s aides and allies are still holding out hope that the governor can resurrect his presidential prospects. But these Times reporters added that a sense of resignation has begun to characterize the mood in Christie’s camp. Some are privately beginning to acknowledge that an unlikely series of events would be necessary at this stage to salvage Christie’s presidential campaign.
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.
They used gentle descriptions like “in a different place” to describe how Mr. Christie had fallen from the high of his re-election in 2013: unpopular at home, limping near the bottom in national Republican polls and lacking the money and momentum of his competitors.
These people spoke on the condition of anonymity, to treat a delicate situation with a level of candor frowned upon in politics.
“His aides say they anticipate he will announce his presidential candidacy in late May or June, but some in the Republican establishment wonder if he will ultimately run,” The Times reporters noted.
It is certainly possible that Christie could through sheer force of personality rehabilitate his image among conservatives on the 2016 debate stage. But there is no precedent that would suggest Christie’s can recover to a point that he emerges from Iowa and New Hampshire with a decent showing. Does Christie mount an expensive and ill-fated presidential bid only to score some points against more viable GOP presidential contenders at the Reagan Library? That seems a waste of energy and capital.
By passing on a 2012 bid, Christie has likely seen his presidential window close for good. Christie’s experience is one that every politician with presidential ambitions should study carefully. Popularity is fleeting and the movement to draft you into a presidential race today won’t necessarily be there in four years. Are you listening Sen. Warren?