Against The Grain

The Case for Chris Christie’s Political Comeback

The New Jersey governor is betting all his political chips on doing well in New Hampshire. If that happens, he’d become an instant contender.

Republican presidential candidate Chris Christie speaks at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington on Nov. 24 about strengthening U.S. intelligence capabilities and other topics.
AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
Josh Kraushaar
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Josh Kraushaar
Dec. 1, 2015, 8 p.m.

New Jer­sey Gov. Chris Christie of­fers a case study in the fu­til­ity of ob­sess­ing over polls at the ex­pense of everything else. If you just look at his na­tion­al and early-state num­bers, which still hov­er in the low single-di­gits, it would be easy to con­clude that he faces near-im­possible odds of win­ning the GOP’s pres­id­en­tial nom­in­a­tion; by the former meas­ure, he was left off the stage at the last Re­pub­lic­an de­bate. But after con­sid­er­ing the gov­ernor’s stra­tegic dis­cip­line—win New Hamp­shire or else—and for­tu­it­ous mes­sage fo­cused on na­tion­al se­cur­ity and law-and-or­der is­sues, it’s clear that Christie is well-po­si­tioned for a polit­ic­al comeback.

After scan­dal back home de­railed his polit­ic­al pro­spects, Christie modeled his pres­id­en­tial cam­paign after John Mc­Cain’s re­tooled op­er­a­tion in 2008: lean, per­son­al­ity-driv­en, and ac­cess­ible. And with fears of ter­ror­ism again at the fore­front of GOP voters’ minds, Christie also has polit­ic­al good for­tune on his hands. He isn’t the most con­vers­ant can­did­ate on for­eign policy—that title goes to Jeb Bush or Marco Ru­bio—but his tough in­dict­ment of Pres­id­ent Obama’s de­tach­ment in the wake of the Par­is ter­ror­ist at­tacks com­bined with hands-on ex­per­i­ence gov­ern­ing ter­ror-scarred New Jer­sey makes him the can­did­ate of the mo­ment.

His en­tire cam­paign now rests on the fickle voters of New Hamp­shire, where he has held 36 town-hall meet­ings and where his cam­paign and su­per PAC have spent most of their $6.4 mil­lion in ad­vert­ising. A strong per­form­ance in the Gran­ite State—fin­ish­ing at the top of the es­tab­lish­ment-friendly field, or a close second—would al­ter the tra­ject­ory of the Re­pub­lic­an race. Mo­mentum is everything in pres­id­en­tial polit­ics, and a Christie comeback would turn around his flag­ging fun­drais­ing in time for the ex­pens­ive March primary battles. Donors have al­ways liked Christie, but backed away when his pro­spects looked long.

Des­pite Christie’s re­lent­less ef­fort in the state, the polit­ic­al re­turn has been mixed. Most con­sequen­tially, he’s be­gin­ning to over­come much of the res­ist­ance from Re­pub­lic­an voters who viewed him as too mod­er­ate to be the party’s stand­ard-bear­er. His em­brace of Pres­id­ent Obama after Su­per­storm Sandy has been over­shad­owed by his acid­ic at­tacks against the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s hand­ling of na­tion­al se­cur­ity.  

His fa­vor­able/un­fa­vor­able rat­ing in New Hamp­shire is now an en­cour­aging 51/30, ac­cord­ing to a re­cent Bo­ston Globe/Suf­folk Uni­versity poll. His net fa­vor­ables are a tick bet­ter than Jeb Bush and John Kasich, and are trend­ing up­wards. His cam­paign strategists, based on their polling, also be­lieve he is much bet­ter-po­si­tioned than his es­tab­lish­ment rivals to pick up Trump sup­port­ers. As my col­league Ron­ald Brown­stein noted, Trump’s base of sup­port is strongest among non­col­lege sec­u­lar Re­pub­lic­ans—the so-called Re­agan Demo­crats of years past. Those voters are pre­val­ent in New Hamp­shire, and at least in the state, Christie’s ad­visers ar­gue that their sup­port over­laps with Trump’s base. “One can­did­ate that can tap in­to what Trump is tap­ping in­to is Christie,” said a seni­or ad­viser to the gov­ernor. “Christie has the same tell-it-like-it-is ap­proach, and that’s what these voters ul­ti­mately like.”

That mes­sage is also trans­lat­ing or­gan­iz­a­tion­ally in New Hamp­shire. The New Hamp­shire Uni­on Lead­er offered Christie an early, glow­ing en­dorse­ment head­lined: “For our safety, for our fu­ture: Chris Christie.” While the pa­per’s track re­cord of pick­ing win­ners isn’t great, it’s not­able that the con­ser­vat­ive ed­it­or­i­al board picked a can­did­ate per­ceived as too mod­er­ate. The pa­per holds a sol­id track re­cord sway­ing un­com­mit­ted voters, and in such a crowded field, their back­ing car­ries more weight. In ad­di­tion, Christie has been rack­ing up sup­port from pivotal New Hamp­shire in­siders, an im­port­ant in­dic­at­or of voter back­ing down the road.

And as a gov­ernor, Christie has the op­por­tun­ity to be­come the es­tab­lish­ment al­tern­at­ive to a rising Ru­bio, whose biggest weak­ness is his lack of ex­ec­ut­ive ex­per­i­ence. Three gov­ernors have already dropped out of the race, un­der­min­ing the early con­ven­tion­al wis­dom but of­fer­ing an op­por­tun­ity for the most tal­en­ted politi­cian of those re­main­ing. Christie is the most ef­fect­ive com­mu­nic­at­or of the re­main­ing gov­ernors, and could cap­it­al­ize on any es­tab­lish­ment anxi­ety about nom­in­at­ing such a fresh-faced new­comer.

But des­pite the green shoots, there are still cau­tion­ary signs for Team Christie. Des­pite the gov­ernor’s im­prov­ing net fa­vor­ables, he still lags badly in New Hamp­shire polling. He only won 4 per­cent of the vote in the Globe’s sur­vey, and just 11 per­cent when second-choice can­did­ates were ad­ded. For a can­did­ate de­pend­ing on New Hamp­shire, he’ll need to see im­prove­ment soon.  

Christie is also de­pend­ent of the mis­for­tunes of oth­er can­did­ates, es­pe­cially Ru­bio. As long as Ru­bio looks like the donors’ darling and most elect­able al­tern­at­ive to the grass­roots fa­vor­ites, Christie will struggle to get trac­tion. In­deed, Christie’s re­cent mo­mentum has largely come at the ex­pense of Jeb Bush, who ori­gin­ally looked like the gov­ernor with the re­sources and strategy to go the dis­tance. Now he looks like Christie with less cha­risma and a prob­lem­at­ic last name.

The biggest red flag for Christie: the on­go­ing in­vest­ig­a­tion over his ad­min­is­tra­tion’s hand­ling of the George Wash­ing­ton Bridge lane clos­ures. He has avoided the ag­gress­ive scru­tiny that has burdened many of his rivals, but the is­sue isn’t go­ing away and, even if Re­pub­lic­ans dis­miss it, it will con­tin­ue to raise ques­tions about his elect­ab­il­ity in a gen­er­al elec­tion. Mean­while, his re­cord back home is filled with vul­ner­ab­il­it­ies, from the state’s lackluster eco­nom­ic growth to his rock-bot­tom ap­prov­al rat­ings. Christie al­lies counter that it’s a product of New Jer­sey’s Demo­crat­ic nature, but a cent­ral part of the gov­ernor’s mes­sage is that he was able to win reelec­tion with an un­usu­ally large co­ali­tion. That’s far from the case now.

Still, it’s strik­ing that Christie has a path­way to vic­tory when his cam­paign looked to be on life sup­port not long ago. His polit­ic­al for­tunes are akin to his ho­met­own New York Gi­ants—a real shot at mak­ing the (polit­ic­al) play­offs, but need­ing oth­er cam­paigns to col­lapse. To pre­vail in New Hamp­shire, he’ll need to win over sup­port from the oth­er ex­ec­ut­ives—Bush, Kasich, and Carly Fior­ina—while po­ten­tially peel­ing off some of Trump’s wide­spread sup­port. For everything to break his way is plaus­ible, but a risky bet.

Usu­ally, two can­did­ates emerge from the polit­ic­al rubble of the Iowa caucuses and the New Hamp­shire primar­ies. This year, we could see four: Trump as the can­did­ate of GOP pop­u­lists, Cruz or Car­son as the evan­gel­ic­als’ pick, Ru­bio as the early es­tab­lish­ment fa­vor­ite, and Christie as the es­tab­lish­ment al­tern­at­ive eager to con­trast his ex­ec­ut­ive ex­per­i­ence against first-term sen­at­ors, a neurosur­geon, and a real­ity-show star.

“You’re go­ing to find four or five tick­ets com­ing out of New Hamp­shire—and I’m con­fid­ent Christie will be one of them,” said Christie back­er Joel Maiola, who served as a chief of staff to former Sen. Judd Gregg. “Polit­ics is all about tim­ing. And his tim­ing could not be bet­ter.”

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