With the New Hampshire primary fast approaching and Governor Chris Christie seeing a rise in popularity that no one would have predicted months ago, the question remains whether his campaign can parlay that unexpected rally into a viable longer-term candidacy. With only one staffer in South Carolina and virtually no preliminary campaigning in the states that follow New Hampshire and Iowa, Christie’s chances could rest on his ability to mimic frontrunner Donald Trump’s wildly successful new-media strategies while appealing to a party establishment desperate for a more even-keeled candidate.
Christie is trailing with single-digit numbers everywhere but in New Hampshire, and has been facing attacks from rivals like former Florida governor Jeb Bush on his record as governor in New Jersey, but his numbers in New Hampshire are strong: RealClearPolitics put him in third place behind Trump, and three places ahead of Bush.
While some are predicting an early success and subsequent blowout a la Mike Huckabee in 2008 and John McCain in 2012, the field in 2015 is different for a Republican party struggling to lock in a reliable frontrunner and an electorate whose relationship to the political process has changed with social media’s rise and the nationalization of political coverage.
Where in the past a win in New Hampshire might fail to make up for inadequate on-the-ground campaigning in other key states, Montclair University political scientist Brigid Harrison said that Christie’s appeal as a known GOP vote-getter in a deeply blue state combined with his demonstrated understanding of new media will leave him well-situated for a fundraising windfall if he comes out of the early primaries with second or third-place standing.
Despite the lack of an obvious plan of attack for South Carolina, that could make all the difference.
“National media covers these events, and that is essentially the only news that people get,” said Harrison of this cycle’s coverage. “A voter in Poughkeepsie is paying attention to what’s happening in New Hampshire much more closely than, say, twenty years ago.”
“Before, they figured: ‘We’ll wait until it’s our turn.’ I don’t get the sense that people are doing that now,” she said of states like South Carolina.
Harrison added that Christie’s ability to work outside traditional press and party channels parallels Trump’s, pointing to his first statewide campaign in 2009. Although Trump has garnered outsized popular support with his far-reaching Twitter page and all but guaranteed coverage with his incendiary positions, Harrison said not to count out the Christie camp’s experience with social media. Their emphasis on subtler but more sophisticated micro-targeting techniques and digital, niche messaging played a huge role in driving Republican turnout in unexpected places when Christie was still a gubernatorial newcomer.
“It wasn’t the national media’s coverage of him that started his ascendancy, it was his youtube views,” she said. “It was geared to appeal to a young, white male audience. And it worked.”
Describing the Christie campaign’s approach to New Hampshire as “all in,” Rider University’s Ben Dworkin agreed that this year’s early primary victories will resonate for GOP backers in a way that they haven’t during previous cycles.
“He needs to come away not just as the person who finished second, but he needs to separate himself from the others so that people don’t rally around them heading into South Carolina and then Nevada,” said Dworkin. “The amount of free publicity that will surround the people who have momentum will be huge.
“It’s a money game. You need money to be on television.”
With the GOP field still so volatile, Christie could offer the primary voters an appealing compromise between the kind of brash persona and easy recognition that Trump has capitalized on and a solid electoral record at home, beating out other comparatively moderate New Hampshire frontrunners like Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio.
“When you compare him to a Ben Carson or a Donald Trump, suddenly he’s the adult in the room and becomes much more of an establishment candidate,” Harrison said.