In the summer of 2012, Chris Christie was a little-known Republican governor in a solidly liberal state with middling approval ratings. His political career was transformed when Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast that October and Christie toured New Jersey to express sympathy for the hurricane’s victims. In what became a powerful image for both Christie and a president campaigning for reelection, Christie embraced President Obama and made appeals to transcend partisan politics. In the immediate aftermath, Christie’s approval ratings soared to an a astronomical 73% in early 2013. In today’s highly polarized and partisan politics, especially in a state where Mitt Romney only won 40% of the vote just months before, Christie’s success was nothing short of astounding. With the help of endorsements from several prominent New Jersey Democrats, Christie cruised to reelection in November 2013 with 60% of the vote. From there, he had his sights aimed squarely on the 2016 presidency – the media loved him, and he was the only Republican who polled on an even level with Hillary Clinton.
The recent revelations of the Fort Lee bridge closure, however, has changed the Christie calculus entirely. After the mayor of Fort Lee, Mark Sokolich (D), refused to endorse Christie in his reelection effort, Christie’s political aides attempted to get retribution by creating a “traffic experiment” that closed two lanes of the George Washington Bridge on September 9th, 2013, causing mass delays for many people traveling between New York and New Jersey for work and school.
Although Christie denies any involvement in the case and fired those involved, the damage has been done – his approval rating has fallen back to 46%. The positive qualities he exuded earlier on – frustration with the partisan status quo in Washington and extensive efforts to work with Democrats in the state – have either disappeared from the conversation, or, in the case of his tendency to cut through the bullshit and call things as he sees them, have made him look like a bully.
Some Republican strategists who viewed Christie as their best hope in 2016 feel that his presidential prospects have been significantly damaged, but others have argued that the scandal will fade in the next two years.The good news for Christie is that most people will forget or stop caring about the scandal by the time the primary campaign kicks off in the fall of 2015. His explanation is plausible enough (if not entirely convincing) that it won’t be the issue that destroys his candidacy. His elevated approval ratings and strong reelection effort in one of the more liberal states in the country is proof of his electability, one of the most important characteristics of a Republican nominee in an era where the Republican candidate has lost the popular vote in five of the last six elections. Equally important is that he has solid conservative credentials: despite relatively moderate positions on gun control and environmental issues, he is solidly pro-life, opposes same-sex marriage, has strongly fought the unions in New Jersey, and has cut spending. He is as conservative if not more as any of the last five Republican nominees (Mitt Romney, John McCain, George W. Bush, Bob Dole, and George H.W. Bush).
The bad news for Christie is that he falls back to Earth after this scandal. Not only are his New Jersey approval ratings down, but in the (extremely early) 2016 polling, his standing has fallen among primary voters. The Republican establishment is far less enthusiastic about his candidacy than they were, although major figures have still stepped up to his defense. The scandal reeks of bureaucratic heavy-handedness, not a strong trait for a party that supports limited government. And finally, people don’t want to support a candidate associated with corrupt practices.
All of these problems are subtle but important. In presidential election politics for both parties, there is something called the “invisible primary”. This is what potential candidates go through in the years before the actual primary. It involves courting establishment figures, winning over major donors, allying with members of Congress across the country, making speeches at dinners in Iowa, and fundraising. These are things that a candidate has to do to have any chance of winning.
On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton is dominating the invisible primary in an unprecedented way and Republican officials know this. Chris Christie had a chance to secure a strong lead in the “invisible primary” and he blew it. Instead, he will probably have to fight it out amongst the other major Republican candidates while Clinton cruises to victory. As premature as talk about a presidential election almost three years away might seem, this scandal may be bad not just for the standing of Chris Christie, but the future of the Republican Party.
Image by Kena Betancur from Getty Images