Is Christie Damaged Goods?

Is Christie Damaged Goods?
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Once upon a time, not so long ago, the consensus among pundits was that Chris Christie was the frontrunner for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016 -- and a relatively solid one at that. That, of course, was before news broke that his administration was involved in shutting down lanes on the George Washington Bridge, allegedly to retaliate against a local official who had refused to endorse Christie in his re-election campaign.

Since then, commentary has regarded the New Jersey governor as almost hopelessly damaged goods, with the focus turning to other establishment contenders such as Jeb Bush.

This always struck me as odd. As far as I can tell, Christie has as good a shot as anyone at being the GOP nominee, and of winning the general election.

Now, to be perfectly clear up front, I am not offering any prediction as to who the standard-bearer will be. The largest vote share for any leader in any poll taken this cycle to date is 24 percentage points -- scored by Christie in mid-November. Early primary polling is largely a function of name recognition.  It isn’t accidental that the various polling leaders -- Christie, Mike Huckabee, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio -- have either run before or have led at times of maximum news exposure.

Take Christie.  He led in a handful of polls in mid-2013, but didn’t become the clear frontrunner until after he scored his massive re-election win in New Jersey, which was accompanied by a slew of positive press coverage.  This faded when the Fort Lee bridge scandal broke early this year.

But let’s add some perspective.  His leads before the scandal broke were: two, nine, six, three, five, four and four points.  That’s something, but it didn’t make him the prohibitive favorite either.

Since then, he has trailed the leader in the polls by one, four, three, four, four, eight, four, five, and one.  He’s been tied twice, and led once.  Mind you, this came during a spate of universally bad news for the governor.

In other words, there hasn’t really been a collapse of support for Christie, if for no other reason than he didn’t have a platform to collapse from.  But more importantly, he’s gone from being the leader by four points or so to trailing by four points or so. He’s taken on some water from the bridge scandal, but it really isn’t that much more than we’d expect from the normal ebb and flow of the business cycle.

We might get a better view of things by looking at polling in his own state.  This is relevant because voters there have gotten all of the news, and are more familiar with the implications of the scandal (overlooked: it’s likely that a large portion -- probably a supermajority -- of voters in the country have no idea what the significance of the George Washington Bridge is, much less the implications of the scandal).

Quinnipiac has been tracking the governor’s job approval. Unsurprisingly, Christie’s rating has fallen since its highs in early 2013.  But perhaps surprisingly, even in an awfully blue state, where the story has been the most heavily covered, he’s still net-positive in his job approval: It’s now 49-44.  It’s not even the worst showing of his career -- that came in early 2011. Republicans support him, 82-14, and Independents back him by 54-39. He is, incidentally, more popular than President Obama, and the share of voters who say he would make a good president, though lower than in 2103, is higher than it was in 2010.

What this scandal has done is remove the more or less bipartisan support for Christie that emerged in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.  But that’s mostly inevitable.  We saw this happen to John McCain in 2008 once he became the face of the GOP, and we’re seeing it happen to Hillary Clinton today.

The one danger to Christie is that some smoking gun will emerge implicating him in the scandal. This is where the much-disparaged review of the case by the law firm of Gibson Dunn & Crutcher actually has some relevance.  I think many analysts missed the point.  This wasn’t a review to convince the public of Christie’s innocence -- they are far too tuned out and distrustful of lawyers to buy into it.

What this was about was the “invisible primary” going on among donors, politicians and party apparatchiks.  This primary exists to line up sufficient endorsements and fundraising to compete in the real primary. What the report is saying to these donors -- all of whom know the firm -- is “We’re a top-tier law firm without a strong dog in this fight, and a lot to lose in terms of our reputation. Guys, there isn’t a smoking gun.”  

This doesn’t mean that such a document isn’t hiding somewhere that the firm missed. But it really is of a fair degree of significance. The report means that we should be surprised if such a document emerges, but we should also bear in mind that surprising things happen all the time in document discovery -- I once found a cache of documents in a coat closet at a client’s office, and of course there’s this. More importantly, that was certainly the message received by the donor class.  That matters. 

At the end of the day, “Bridgegate” is a bad fact for Christie. It will certainly feature in 30-second ads.  It also effectively sucks up all of the governor’s “free time,” freezing his campaign in place and preventing him from laying the sort of groundwork that Rand Paul and Jeb Bush are putting in place. 

But these are really just two of many problems, ranging from his relative liberalism on some key issues to his weight to his “Jersey” demeanor, which really will matter somewhat in the Midwest. But no candidate comes to an election with a perfect resume -- certainly not Bill Clinton, certainly not George W. Bush, and certainly not Barack Obama (if I’d said in early 2006 that John McCain would be the GOP nominee and Obama the Democratic one, most analysts would have predicted a GOP win).

Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at strende@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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