It was a mere four years ago that the Republican party was courting Chris Christie like a nerd on a popular cheerleader. But those days, my friends, are long gone, and with reports that he will be suspending his presidential campaign, he is now relegated to the dreaded “also ran” status.
In New Jersey, Mr. Christie’s downfall began with the Bridgegate scandal, yet there is little evidence that Bridgegate had very much bearing on his poor showings in the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, where his sixth place finish essentially ended his candidacy.
Why was Mr. Christie unable to gain traction?
- The Trump factor – An outside celebrity candidate was not destined to draw support from Mr. Christie, but Donald Trump’s personal style managed to out-Christie Christie. Mr. Christie had developed a brand centered on the idea that angry, frustrated voters (as most Republicans are after having lived for eight years through the Obama administration) like tough talk. But Mr. Christie’s “telling it like it is” played like watered down Jim Bean in a jelly jar against Mr. Trump’s two fingers of the The Macallan in cut glass snifter. Surprisingly, in a contest of bombast, Mr. Christie, perhaps for the first time in his life, lost.
- A crowded field of moderates – In New Hampshire, many voters recognize that ideology matters, and a centrist candidate is more likely to go on and win the general election. But with Marco Rubio, John Kasich, Jeb Bush and Mr. Christie all vying for the moderate portion of the GOP primary vote, the pie was divided into comparatively small pieces. If we were to total up the percentages of those four comparatively moderate vote getters, they received 45 percent of the vote. Compare that to 2012, when Mitt Romney stood alone as the moderate standard-bearer: That year, he netted over 39 percent of the New Hampshire primary vote, while Ron Paul, Jon Hunstman, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, and Rick Perry divided up the conservative base.
- The Obama non-Embrace – Mr. Christie will argue tooth and nail that he did not hug President Barack Obama when the president visited New Jersey in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. What he doesn’t seem to understand is that the embrace was a metaphor, symbolic of a snuggly relationship with Democrats, which is a turn-off for even moderate Republicans. Mr. Christie was first catapulted to the national spotlight in a 2010 address at the Reagan Presidential Library, where he chastened Washingtonians for their divisive politics. With a nation who had lived through a government shut-down weary of the partisan bickering, that argument resonated. But Republicans wanted someone who could persuade Democrats to back Republican policies, not the other way around. Of course, reasonable people understand that it is job of governors to work with a sitting president (or a Democratically-controlled legislature, for that matter), particularly after a natural disaster. But Mr. Christie, who was then considered a leader in his party, heaped praise on Mr. Obama just days before voters went to polls. Average Republicans saw this as a betrayal of Mitt Romney, his party’s nominee. The more cynical among us saw this as a calculated maneuver by a masterful Machiavellian politician subtly conveying support for the incumbent president, paving the way to be his successor in four years. Either way, it was viewed by many rank and file Republicans and the Republican establishment as a disloyal.
- SuperPACs – In a pre-Citizens United world, Christie would have had an upper hand: He has access to so much of the big Wall Street donors who are his constituents, and friends of his Wall Street wife. As the former chair of the Republican Governors’ Association, Mr. Christie demonstrated enviable fundraising prowess, setting records as he raised money across the nation for various Republican gubernatorial candidates. But in an era of Super PACs, the traditional donors become less relevant: Mr. Bush has received over $50 million dollars from wealthy SuperPACs, while Ted Cruz has netted over $36 million, despite his villain status among many party movers and shakers. By contrast, Mr. Christie’s SuperPAC, America Leads, raised just over $16 million last year.
- The Primary/Caucus system – An oft-repeated complaint about the way in which political parties select their nominees is that non-representative segments of the population have disproportionate say. Among these are rural voters and Evangelical voters in Iowa, who would, it would seem, have little affection for an urban Catholic voter who swears a lot. But New Hampshire, which allows independent voters to vote in either party’s primary, probably hurt Mr. Christie too. This political reality probably increased Mr. Trump’s proportion of the vote-share, as frustrated independents would be less concerned with Mr. Trump’s lack of loyalty to the Republican party than staunch Republican party identifiers would. In the end, this would serve to dilute Mr. Christie’s proportion of the vote, though it likely had little bearing on his sixth place finish.
Brigid Callahan Harrison is professor of political science and law at Montclair State University, where she teaches courses in American government. A frequent commentator on state and national politics, she is the author of five books on American politics. Like her on Facebook at Brigid Callahan Harrison. Follow her on Twitter @BriCalHar.