WASHINGTON, Janyary 24, 2014 – Christie trails presumptive Democrat nominee Hillary Clinton 46%-38%, after running neck-and-neck with Clinton in December and November polls. The Iowa Caucuses and the New Hampshire primary are two years away, but these results opens up a critical few weeks for Christie if he hopes to be the next President.
Despite the rough headlines and the eight-point deficit, Christie has plenty going his way. There’s no smoking gun linking the governor directly to the decision to clog up traffic on the George Washington Bridge more than usual; currently his only crime is being a poor judge of character. His in-person mea culpa to the mayor of Fort Washington, the town affected by the shutdown, likely helped portray an image of sincerity – an imprint of the same brusque, brutal honesty that has become Christie’s trademark.
The best news for Christie is that the voting public has lots of time before they have to decide how much “Bridgegate” really means to them. If there are no indictments, if there are no leaked documents implicating high-ranking aides, and if Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer’s allegations about Sandy Relief Funds being traded for support turn out to be exaggerated or false, the story can die relatively quickly. By November, the national political stories will focus on Congressional mid-term elections, and the scandals will be an afterthought in the pre-game coverage for 2016. January’s eight-point gap could become a two-point lead by December without much surprise.
Yet Christie has two early strikes against him: an unsympathetic media, and a crowded field of opponents from both sides of the aisle.
News outlets will frame much of the coverage of Christie’s next few weeks in office in terms of Bridgegate. Because he is the apparent front-runner for the Republican nomination, each investigation or inquiry will require front-page coverage in New Jersey. National press who let the term-limited Obama Administration off the hook on most scandals will hold Christie’s feet firmly to the fire. After all, the actual campaign is two years away, and these folks have stories to write.
But the incendiary element for any bad news – especially in the coming months – will come from Christie’s opponents. And he might find fewer allies within his own party than he hoped.
Republican primaries are famous for being hard-fought contests which eventually nominate the candidate who was perceived as the front-runner from the beginning. The pattern has held for Bob Dole in 1996, George W. Bush in 2000, John McCain in 2008, and Mitt Romney in 2012. The best strategy for a Republican primary candidate, it seems, is to be the front runner.
And if you aren’t the front runner, the next-best strategy is to (in the parlance of New Jersey) get the frontrunner out of the way.
That’s easier said than done. Front runners are so crowned because of institutional support and early advantages in fundraising money, prime activists, and organization. But Christie’s scandals offer a unique opportunity to reshuffle the deck.
For serious Republican contenders – those with early organizational advantages in place and a good head start on fundraising – the coming weeks may be the last chance to establish Christie’s position in the minds of next year’s primary voters. Is he the default candidate who may not be the most conservative, but would certainly be the most forceful GOP nominee since George W. Bush? Or, is he the governor willing to spin the wheels of a large state bureaucracy if it suits his gain? The most effective campaign trail messages in 2016 could be viewed through a prism forged over the next few months, which means an investment in intense, data-driven organization now could pay big dividends in 24 months.
That prism could affect general election voters even more than primary voters, which means Clinton and others seeking the Democratic nomination will also seek to exploit Bridgegate.
For what it’s worth, this is an opportunity for Team Christie as well. Those 38% who support him now offer a base for organizing, a bulwark of true believers who could become important voters come primary season. There’s just as much for Christie to do as for those chasing him.
The electorate tends to forget flash-in-the-pan scandals, so by the time the Iowa caucuses convene no one may care about the cloud over Chris Christie’s inauguration this week. Whether the troubled waters are allowed to smooth out will depend on his opponents and their allies.