Chris Christie: Sleeping Giant?

Nearly three months ago, not only did my “Ted Cruz: Sleeper” column become this blog’s most popular post, but it also proved to be pretty prescient. Can I catch lightning in a bottle again? We’ll see. This is a long one, so here’s a bulleted summary:

  • Chris Christie is somehow alive, despite the many challenges his campaign has faced.
  • However, he’s turning those negatives into positives.
  • And he might just have the highest general election ceiling of any candidate in either party.

When it comes time for my January Power Rankings, I’ll make the case that we’re down to five realistic candidates for the Republican nomination. Incredibly, Chris Christie is one of them. Despite putting his arm around President Obama before the 2012 election, despite losing his pre-2012 number one fan in Ann Coulter (who had flipflopped from calling him the savior of the party to “dead to me”), despite “fading into darkness” a few months ago before reaching his nadir that was the fourth kiddie table debate, Chris Christie is somehow alive. Like a heavyweight boxer, this candidate has a puncher’s chance at this thing.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, my bullish stance on his chances should come as no surprise. As early as July I had him ranked fourth, and nothing since then has backed me off. (In fact, as of the December Power Rankings, he was the only candidate to never have shifted his spot from July to this month.) The odds are finally catching up to PPFA. A long shot over the summer and just 25:1 for the nomination as recently as October, the oddsmakers think his chances have since doubled to 12 or 14:1.

Why did I have faith in the eventual Christie surge? While this prediction was grounded in objectivity, I must admit a soft spot for the governor of New Jersey. Let’s start there.

Four years ago, when I covered the 2012 race for Construction Literary Magazine, there was little I was truly impressed with by either the Obama or Romney campaigns. I had yet to ever vote for one of the two major parties for president, and neither candidate threatened to break that streak. Both of them threw tons of red meat to their bases and divided the country in hopes of winning the wishbone.

Ultimately, the most impressive man of the 2012 election was not a presidential candidate at all, but the governor of New Jersey. The week before the election, Hurricane Sandy hit the northeast coast and devastated Chris Christie’s home state. President Obama, acting as both a president and politician running for office, toured the storm-ravaged areas, aided in its cleanup efforts, and promised to marshal federal support to it. The Republican Christie, despite many people seeing Romney with the momentum in a tight race, not only embraced the President at his arrival, but he relentlessly praised the man for his presidential response. Many Republicans and pundits thought Christie gave Obama just what he needed for his re-election. Christie became anathema to the GOP.

When continually pressed on this unnecessarily effusive praise, Chris Christie always doubled down, and at one point answered, “I’ve got a job to do here in New Jersey that’s much bigger than presidential politics, and I could care less about any of that stuff. I have a job to do. I’ve got 2.4 million people out of power. I’ve got devastation on the Shore. I’ve got floods in the northern part of my state. If you think right now I give a damn about presidential politics, then you don’t know me.”

Make no mistake, there were ways to accept federal help without greeting the President off the plane, giving him a hug, then basically doing a media blitz about how great a job the President was doing. He could have tiptoed around him, offered shorter responses, consistently mixed into his responses how much he “disagrees with his liberal politics and is firmly behind Governor Romney but this isn’t a political situation,” and taken other measures to not appear like he wanted to be Obama’s BFF, but he did none of that. Whether he was genuinely moved by the President’s empathy or buttering him up for maximum funds, it appears he put his state and constituents first and politics second. It’s what we want, but so rarely get, from our leaders.

So when he declared his candidacy this time around, I must admit I was pulling for him to be competitive. He earned that, and I would have been disappointed if Republicans ruled him out due to his Sandy response three years earlier.

Objectively, meanwhile, there are a lot of things to like about his candidacy, but first let’s get to his negatives. He obviously came in with a lot of baggage. The Obama hug put him behind the eight ball before we even cleared our throat for 2016 chatter. Then Bridgegate tarnished his brand, perhaps beyond repair. The NRA gave him a “C” grade on guns, which might as well be an “F minus minus” for a Republican. Fiscally, he hasn’t been able to get New Jersey’s books in order and has seen the state’s credit downgraded for a ninth time. Meanwhile, he has the most liberal record in the field according to, among others, FiveThirtyEight, which measures public statements, fundraising, and voting records of all the candidates:

silver-datalab-christie-1

Republicans seemed to notice this Brobdignagian baggage. A 2013 Gallup poll of Republicans showed Christie with among the highest name recognition but the worst net favorable rating of potential presidential candidates:Potential 2016 Republican presidental candidates favor and familiar ratings

It didn’t look good for The Man Who Hugged Obama. So why, aside from my momentary swoon for the man in November 2012, has the otherwise relentlessly objective PPFA ranked him a top four candidate in the quest for the Republican nomination?

It’s because A) He’s done a pretty remarkable job weathering or even reversing these negatives, and B) His upside as a candidate is sky high.

Let’s look at how he’s handled these negatives, starting with Bridgegate. Christie has either been fortunate or vindicated here; he has maintained he knew nothing about it, and neither special investigations nor fact-checkers have found otherwise. In his public comments, he walked a narrow and surely strained tightrope by accepting responsibility as governor while also blaming his subordinates for closing lanes without his knowledge. Still, two years later, not one legal glove has been laid on his doughy frame, and only those with an interest in seeing him punched — liberals and Republican opponents — continue to rehash the story. If he does surge and gets pressed on it, I can see the media’s obsession with the story ultimately working in his favor if he spins it right.

Meanwhile, another Christie negative — his favorability rating among Republicans — has nearly been totally reversed. I’ve often commented on Christie’s unrivaled ability as a retail politician; last month’s viral video on drug addiction was more proof of that. No one in either party is better in small groups. No one better merges comfort, affability, and substance on a debate stage either. As a result, he has steadily won over voters, especially in the hugely important state of New Hampshire. Earlier this month, I cited Public Policy Polling’s description of his soaring favorable-unfavorable split in New Hampshire, which was up to 61/22, the best split of any candidate: “Here comes Chris Christie! As PPP tells us ‘To put those numbers in perspective Christie was at 35/46 when we polled the state in August, so he’s had a 50 point net improvement in his favorability over the last three months.'” Ten days ago, the latest New Hampshire poll found him statistically tied with Rubio for the highest percentage of Republicans who view the candidate favorably. The latest two national polls — CNN’s and Quinnipiac’s from last week — also has him comfortably above water with 53/37 and 52/27 favorable-unfavorable splits. Even big kids can climb the rope.

The next two hurdles are more difficult to overcome. His relatively liberal record puts him in a tight spot. The earlier FiveThirtyEight graphic had him more liberal than Jon Huntsman, who four years ago similarly banked on New Hampshire, finished third in it, then dropped out a few days later. Christie was also listed more liberal than Bob Dole, who despite being the 1996 Republican nominee, has recently opined that the modern Republican Party has become much too conservative for the likes of himself and Ronald Reagan. If Christie is more liberal than that, he’s got problems.

Pair that with the Obama embrace and it seems rather easy to associate him as far too Democrat-friendly for the Republican nomination. Recall that at the last debate, Ted Cruz, who was found to have either the best or second best debate performance by those CNN and Quinnipiac national polls, attached Marco Rubio to Democrats and painted him — again, Marco Rubio, perhaps the third most conservative candidate in the field — as too liberal to represent the GOP. Rubio, fortunately for him, has more more money, national support, and conservative bona fides to weather this accusation than Christie does, so how can he survive?

Probably by giving answers like the one from his undercard debate appearance. Remember when Bobby Jindal was seeking out a fight and Christie kept taking the higher road and setting his sights on Hillary Clinton? During his response, he noted that, “If you go to New Jersey, they’ll call me lots of different things. A liberal is not one of them.” Christie is considered to have convincingly won that exchange, while Jindal is once again working on his tan.

In his response, Christie went on to remind viewers that he has to work in a state that is dominated by Democrats, both in the state legislature and voting booth. We have to remember that much of Christie’s “liberal” record, including his C on guns, stems from his necessity to work with these opponents. Christie has been forced to find compromise and solutions by finding common ground, something that has been lacking from Washington for nearly four presidential terms. In 2013, New Jersey rewarded him a reelection with more than 60 percent of the vote. A Republican in New Jersey!

His economic record can be explained easily, although “credibly” is up for debate. Last week, when George Stephanopoulus asked why he had all these credit downgrades on his watch, he responded, “Because I’m cleaning up the mess that I inherited. And I’m doing it honestly and rightfully and not by borrowing more money to paper it over.” Refusing to borrow money can go a long way in a GOP Primary, just like blaming Democrats can, not unlike President Obama blaming President Bush for the last seven years.

A conservative Forbes editorial from August tried to shed light on his economic achievements. It noted the Democratic legislature was an impressive obstacle to hurdle and found that his fiscal record is all the more impressive because of it:

“What Gov. Christie has accomplished in a deep blue state over the last six years is worth close examination. . . .

“When looking at the nine current and former governors running for president, Gov. Christie’s ability to rein in the growth of government stands out amongst his peers.

Source: Strategas Research Partners
Source: Strategas Research Partners

“Aside from Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Gov. Christie has held state government spending to a lower rate of growth than the other current and former governors running for president. In fact, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, despite having the advantage of Republican-controlled legislatures, have signed into law general fund budgets that increased spending twice as fast as what occurred in New Jersey under Gov. Christie. . . .

“When analyzing the records of governors running to be the Republican nominee . . . Christie’s record on spending stacks up well based on raw numbers alone, but it becomes even more impressive in light of the fact that he accomplished this while dealing with a Democrat-controlled state legislature hell-bent on raising taxes and growing the size of government.”

This might be PPFA’s subjectivity seeping in again, but a governor’s experience in dealing with an adversarial state congress might be the most valuable trait any candidate for president can have. We often talk about the value of executive experience in a candidate, but we often forget the part about working with the lawmaking branch of government. I think something that is forgotten by Cruz, Trump, Clinton, and Sanders supporters is not only the enormously divisive general election that’s in store for them if they win their party’s nomination, but also the difficult presidency that would await them were they to find themselves in the Oval Office. After Republicans worked so hard to block President Obama, you can imagine how hard they would work to block Hillary Clinton — perhaps the only person loathed more by Republicans than Obama himself — and the Democratic Socialist Sanders. Meanwhile, Democrats would surely seek revenge and slow down the agenda of a Republican nominee, particularly one as conservative as Cruz or batpoop crazy as Trump. Isn’t Christie’s history of battling an antagonistic legislature and finding compromise more valuable than, say, Cruz’z diehard, my-way-or-the-highway conservatism?

Of course, I must admit that I’m not entirely sure that kind of experience will matter in a Republican Primary, where it’s a lot easier to hear a Cruz one-liner about liberals or look at a chart and see that Christie has the most liberal record of all the candidates than it is to understand his nuanced relationship to the heavily Democratic New Jersey. Still, I do think his response to Jindal shows that he can successfully deflect the accusation were he to surge to become a contender. This is important, because his surge is about to happen. Carly Fiorina was the candidate of September. Ben Carson the candidate of October. Then it was Ted Cruz’s turn in November and December. But as the candidates play musical chairs around the dominant Donald Trump, all of them want to be the candidate of January and February. That’s when it really matters. Fiorina and Carson, despite looking great a couple months ago, have massive forks sticking out of their backs. Time will tell if Cruz can sustain the surge into February, but he may have peaked too early. Will Christie be the candidate to pop at the right time?

It’s certainly possible. He checks off a lot of boxes. Executive experience, not a Washington insider, excellent debater and campaigner, and, valuable in this primary cycle in particular, a big, brash mouth that can go bark for bark with Donald Trump if need be.

But maybe, as the party hashes out who to support, the one characteristic that will ultimately be more valued than the rest is “Who can beat Hillary Clinton?”  Rubio is a perfectly fine answer to that question, a big reason why I had him ranked #1 in my most recent Power Rankings, but think back to that Obama embrace — our remaining ostensible weakness of this once struggling campaign. If general elections really are won by winning over moderates and Independents, aren’t those the types of voters that look past the “He shouldn’t have been so receptive to the President because there was an election going on!” BS and instead respect the decision to put his state over his party? Isn’t that why these Independents haven’t joined a party in the first place? Rubio makes a lot of sense because of aesthetics and Florida’s 29 electoral votes, but Christie’s play for the center is stronger and more substantive. Rubio would take Florida, but a clicking Christie might take Florida and every other swing state, too.

Of course, the odds have Christie at 14:1 for a reason. He needs a perfect storm to get the nomination. Trump needs to lose to Cruz in Iowa, then Christie needs to surge and overtake Trump in New Hampshire as a result of that loss, and then Rubio, Bush, and Kasich need to be good party men and endorse him before Super Tuesday. But incredibly, after all the drama of Chris Christie’s recent career, he has a puncher’s chance at this thing.

Now, with some luck and the will of Republican voters, we’ll find out if Trump has a glass jaw.

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