It was early June when Washington Examiner columnist Timothy Carney forecast the coming Chris Christie comeback story. With the New Jersey governor’s polling sagging and given his seeming inability to resuscitate his appeal to Republican primary voters, this seemed at the time like a risky prediction. Carney’s analysis was, however, sound enough: He noted that the governor excels at retail politics, is a quick wit on the stump, and shines in the small room setting. “This will play well in New Hampshire town halls,” Carney observed. He was right.
The Christie boomlet is upon us. At least, it is upon us in New Hampshire. There, polls now consistently show the New Jersey governor in low double-digits. He has displaced John Kasich, who launched one of the earliest advertising campaigns of the election cycle in New Hampshire, and polls evenly with Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. As a governor with a strong track record on drug and alcohol abuse issues and sentencing guidelines, Christie has an attractive background for voters in a state plagued by a heroin crisis. The Garden State governor has also managed to position himself as one of the more cogent candidates on matters related to national security, and that has served him well with radical Islamic terrorism surging to the forefront of voters’ minds.
With Cruz riding a rocket in polls of both the national and early state primary voters and with Donald Trump’s lead in the Granite State remarkably stable over the last four months, it’s possible that an upset is in the works. For Trump, New Hampshire represents perhaps his best chance for victory – its moderate electorate, its open primary that includes independent voters, and its early spot on the calendar make it a good prospect for a Trump victory. If he wins, prepare for a deluge of hyperventilating commentary about how the Republican Party is – or, at least, should be – panicking. They shouldn’t; the fundamentals get more challenging for Trump as 2016 matures. What should send the party’s “establishment” wing into fits is the prospect of a late Christie surge in New Hampshire that overtakes Rubio. Even if Christie fails to win New Hampshire outright, it substantially blunts Rubio’s aura of viability should he, the last great “establishment” hope, come in third, fourth, or even fifth place in the Granite State. For all his talents, Christie is unlikely to be able to translate a strong showing in the earliest of primaries into a national electoral strategy.
Presuming Ted Cruz clinches a victory in Iowa, what happens to Christie’s campaign after a stronger showing than Rubio in New Hampshire? Not much. The brash New Jersey governor likely hits a wall soon after his all-in for New Hampshire strategy succeeds. “Most of the campaign’s time and resources have been devoted to New Hampshire, with Iowa a distant second,” Politico reported last week. That report noted that the campaign has just one full-time staffer in South Carolina — who the Christie camp will not name — and almost no organization in any other state in the Union. “Without any organization to plug into, Christie runs the risk of not being able to capitalize on any momentum gained from a strong New Hampshire performance,” Politico added.
The Christie campaign is hoping to capitalize on a strong second or third place finish in the first primary state (over the Florida senator) to catapult him into a position to win future contests, but South Carolina would likely remain competitive enough among establishment candidates to split that vote and allow Cruz or Trump to secure another February victory. Rubio’s attention to the Nevada caucuses would likely prevent a Christie surge there, and the Garden State governor would enter the “SEC primary,” dominated as it is by conservative Southern states, an underdog. The governor’s modest fundraising haul and his muted support in the polls outside of New England would seem to render him a rump candidate. And that’s before the questions raised by Bridgegate, his heterodoxy on issues like gun ownership rights and climate change, and the infamous images of him with one arm wrapped around Barack Obama’s waist just days before the 2012 election are deployed against him.
In the end, all the Christie campaign will have succeeded in doing is delivering a serious blow to Rubio’s claim to be able to win elections – a claim that is already subject to intense scrutiny by the universe of political commentators who are cautiously measuring the Florida senator’s expectation against his underwhelming support in horserace polls.
One caveat: This scenario presumes that the state of the race remains static between today and February 9, and that’s extremely unlikely. By the first week of February, the majority of voters who say they’re not paying attention to the race or that their votes might still change begin to get serious. Rubio, who has secured the support of a variety of deep-pocketed donors and prominent legislators in recent weeks, will continue to win big-name endorsements. More candidates polling in the low single digits may drop out, and the vote in Iowa will (as it always has) affect how New Hampshire voters cast their ballots. Ted Cruz may be peaking too early. Donald Trump’s balloon might deflate. Some other establishmentarian candidate (Jeb!) might catch fire while Rubio could self-immolate. Any number of factors may fundamentally alter the dynamics driving the race.
Still, we are now close enough to the first votes to reasonably speculate about why prominent “establishment” GOP leaders continue to sit on the sidelines and wait to coalesce behind one candidate. It seems likely today that they are waiting to see how the race in New Hampshire shakes out. If that is their thinking, they run the risk of backing a candidate who runs out of gas soon after the curtain closes on the Granite State. In that case, the race really may come down to a choice between Trump and Cruz, and that’s a choice that Beltway-based conservatives would prefer to never have to make.