Why is New Jersey Governor Chris Christie running for president? Christie was seen as a formidable contender after his landslide re-election victory in 2013, but his chances were diminished by the impact of the Bridgegate scandal. Moreover, once he began making moves toward a run in the last year, many on the right made it clear they had never forgiven the governor for his ill-timed hug of President Obama in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy that took place days before the 2012 election. Though his name recognition is second only to that of Jeb Bush, polls show him on the bubble in the second tier of Republican presidential candidates in 11th place and in danger of missing the cut for the crucial first debate on Fox News in August. Just as serious is the facts that many of the same important donors that once urged him to run in 2012 have no abandoned his camp to support other GOP contenders. So what is he doing announcing for president today? The answer is that this run is the moral equivalent of buying a lottery ticket. His chances aren’t good but, in a field without a true frontrunner, his chances are no worse than most of the candidates. After spending years pointing toward this goal, why not give it a try?
The scenario for a Christie win is pretty slim. After passing on Iowa, he will have to win or place in New Hampshire and then hope he catches fire while the candidates seeking to win some of the same moderate voters like Jeb Bush implode. Stranger things have happened but, like the people who buy lottery tickets or gamble in the casinos in his state, Christie’s decision seems more like an exercise in wishful thinking than hard political calculation.
Even Christie’s detractors have to admit he brings great political skills to the race. He is a great speaker and undaunted by criticism or challenges, characteristics that will stand him in good stead in the debates that will be crucial in determining the arc of the campaign (assuming that is, that he can get into the first debates rather than be relegated with the others at the bottom of the polls). There is also no denying that his blunt truth-telling style appeals to a lot of people. Indeed, his style was the key to understanding his rise to power in New Jersey as well as the way his YouTube putdowns of liberals who challenged him at town hall meetings made him a national figure. Christie also has a sense of humor and the resiliency needed to survive the maelstrom of a national campaign.
It’s also true that his years of preparation for this moment have equipped him with substantive positions on a variety of issues. Having spent the last few months giving detailed speeches on entitlement reform and foreign policy, Christie enters the race ready to mix it up with substance in a way that some of his rivals are clearly not.
But looming over all of this is the question of his personality and Bridgegate; elements that many pundits believe render his hopes utterly futile.
Let’s concede that most Republican primary voters don’t care much about the traffic scandal that transformed him from a darling of the media to a punch line. Nor is there a shred of proof that he was involved in the bizarre plot to tie up traffic on the George Washington Bridge as part of his staff’s plot to take revenge on a mayor who failed to endorse the governor. But the charge resonated with the public because it seemed entirely in keeping with the bullying style Christie has always employed against political opponents and the press. While his opening campaign video seeks to play on the virtues of his no-holds-barred style, a lot of voters understandably see his “sit down and shut up” approach to dissent as consistent with the Bridgegate scheme. Though this mini-scandal received coverage that was disproportionate to its importance, it stuck with him because of that. It’s also hard to imagine that sort of attitude playing well on national campaign trail under far more intense scrutiny that he has received up until now.
But even if Bridgegate had never happened, Christie was always a long shot for the Republican nomination. Though he has conservative credentials on most important issues, including litmus tests for the GOP like abortion, the perception in the base is that he is a RINO and that is a tag that is almost impossible to shake once it is applied to a politician. The Obama hug is responsible for much of this, but it is also an inevitable consequence of being a governor of blue Northeastern state in a party dominated by the south and the west.
But even if we dismiss that label as meaningless, Christie’s formidable resume still falls short of that of his chief competitors. He’s not as much of a moderate or as comfortable representing the party establishment as Jeb Bush. He is not nearly as heroic a figure as Scott Walker when it comes to defying the unions or Democrats in state disputes (and Christie’s stature as a successful governor has been markedly diminished by plunging popularity and fiscal setbacks in New Jersey). He’s also not as good a speaker or as charming and charismatic as Marco Rubio.
Add up all these factors and you have a candidate with little chance to win. But let’s also understand that Christie isn’t likely to have a better chance four or eight years from now. Since he is term-limited as governor and without a realistic option for a Senate seat (and it is impossible to imagine Christie being a member of a deliberative body), it’s either the presidency or nothing for him. Perhaps he will shine so brilliantly in the debates and Bush, Walker and Rubio will all flop. Probably not, but you’ve got to be in it to win it so why not try?