The conventional wisdom avers that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie will struggle in the Republican primary for the presidential nomination. Yes, the once-conservative darling has seen his favorability slide, both in the party and (above all) in his home state. But it is possible to justify Christie’s challenges without citing his liabilities.
Just for a moment, let us put aside those qualities that rocketed him to stardom – the blunt temper, the everyman appeal with the strong Jersey flavor, the battles with the unions, his ability to work with a Democratic legislature and to rise above his state’s legendary corruption. And never mind the stagnant state economy, nine credit downgrades, and the stench of Jersey corruption in his administration. Just this once, as the locals say: fugheddaboudit.
In Christie’s defense, he has always faced two obstacles since he first harbored presidential ambitions. Each of these highlights a major problem in the modern campaign process.
The first challenge: campaigning from the governor’s mansion. It was once easier to do, especially before the modern era of the direct primary. In theory, an incumbent could treat the primary process as a thespian would an audition. While highlighting his record, he could continue to be the active leader of his home state.
But the line between governing and campaigning has blurred, and many politicians have gone into campaign mode even in governing. Just look at Capitol Hill, where politicians’ speeches can often use talking points that resemble campaign rhetoric. The same elected officials do not spend as much time on the Hill; they have to spend more time on the fundraising circuit.
Presidential candidates especially have to spend a lot of time and energy on fundraising. Those candidates who do not hold office, therefore, can more fully commit their efforts towards presidential runs. Incumbents, meanwhile, have to take time away from the responsibilities and work of elected office. Contemporary senators are, for better or worse, accustomed to traveling outside of Washington and their home states for fundraising purposes. Governors, however, due to the responsibilities of their offices, must spend far more time in the statehouse.
The problem here is that out-of-state campaigning can detract from his ability to lead at home. As Christie tries to present the image of a strong leader to voters across the country, more New Jerseyans will see him as an absent leader. Committing to the governor’s mansion or to a presidential campaign is getting closer and closer to a zero-sum game.
The second challenge: other candidates can use whatever narrative the Christie campaign could use to attract donors and voters. Bring back to the forefront the highlights of his story. Christie will have a hard time closing off any of the primary’s, well, lanes for himself. The red-governor-in-a-blue-state narrative? Christie must be relieved that Mitt Romney is not running, and he could probably prevail over former New York Gov. George Pataki. But if Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a conservative darling, enters the race, he could embrace that narrative. Ditto for the union-busting and everyman-cum-bold-chief-executive bits.
As for bipartisanship and appeal to moderates and voters outside the party’s core demographics? There, Christie faces Jeb Bush, the former governor of major swing state Florida who can tout his ability to court demographics outside his party’s base. Plus, he speaks Spanish and has a Mexican-born wife. But there is the double-edged sword of his name. For voters’ familiarity of the Bush brand and the favorability of his father, there is the baggage related to his brother… starting with his election. If Gov. John Kasich of the ultimate swing state, Ohio, enters, he might wield the moderate narrative with more clout. He can also call attention to his re-election landslide in 2014. Granted, that was a big year for the GOP, but Kasich’s showing looks much like Christie’s the year before.
The flaw that this fierce competition highlights: the supremacy of political branding over substantive debate. Fourteen – and counting – candidates have decided to take advantage of the GOP’s momentum. The GOP has a fresh “bench”, as many of the current crop of national candidates were elected to their current (or highest) posts between Obama’s presidential elections. Meanwhile, Bush is the closest to a next-in-line figure, and “Bush fatigue” pervades much of the party. Even if Christie were the consensus candidate, the anti-establishment wing of the party would still try to find alternatives – the 2016 versions of the “anti-Romney” – and there would be – and are – several candidates who could fit the bill.
So many politicians thus see the opportunity to promote their political brands on a national scale. In turn, we see so many candidates stating similar policy positions (for the most part). And we witness groups of candidates trying to establish the same core of support from within the party. For example, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee are both competing for the evangelical conservatives. We could expect one to fall in line behind the other, but both jumped into the fray; their leaps of faith assumes in no small part that voters will remember their brands from previous election cycles. With brand-based strategies in full force, is it any wonder that Donald Trump is running?!
Even without his liabilities, Christie would have to address the problems of sustaining his political brand and sacrificing on a presidential campaign the political capital he could use in his home state. But his frequent absences from New Jersey have stymied whatever bipartisanship he could have sustained in Trenton. His blunt, Jersey-everyman style, meanwhile, now reeks of the Jersey corruption of his aides (and according to Jon Stewart, subpar Jersey corruption). And the state’s stagnant economy casts a specter over Christie’s national campaign. These and other liabilities have only steepened the already uphill climb that an incumbent governor faces when running for president.