Thursday, January 9, 2014

Why "BridgeGate" Doesn’t Really Matter

Over the past 24 hours, the political chattering class has been aflutter over “bridgegate”, the scandal in New Jersey involving the (deliberate) closure of several lanes of traffic across the George Washington Bridge as political payback for Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich not supporting Christie’s re-election. 

Most politicos have been writing Christie’s obituary, claiming that he is no longer even a contender for the 2016 GOP Presidential nomination.   Most even believe he won’t even attempt running for President now. 

Their predictions are likely half-right, but probably not for the reasons they believe.  Christie will still probably run for President starting in 2015.  But he won’t win.  And that has nothing to do with the current scandal. 

It’s no secret that Chris Christie isn’t especially beloved by conservatives.  In a way, most conservatives, especially tea partiers, feel the same way about Christie as Mitt Romney.  They don’t trust him and see him as a northeastern liberal Republican.

Though Christie is currently polling well among all Republicans (and even better among the general electorate), the first caucus is still two years away and there have been no debates.  It is true that Christie will benefit from likely being one of few (if not the only) moderate Republicans in the field.  Other candidates could be Jeb Bush and longshot Condi Rice. 

But by January 2016, there will have been more than a dozen debates, and conservatives will have likely coalesced around one or two conservative candidates instead of splitting the vote between the half-dozen or so conservatives currently in the running.

Further, Christie will suffer from a built-in structural challenge: the primary calendar.  Assuming the schedule will remain the same, or at least similar to previous years, at least in terms of state order, Christie is at a major disadvantage, especially to someone such as Rand Paul. 

There is little question Iowa will be the first state to hold a primary or caucus.  Then will come New Hampshire, South Carolina, Florida, and Nevada.  Michigan could also be in that mix.  It is no secret that Iowa does not favor moderate Republicans (although Mitt Romney only lost by eight votes in 2012).  Candidates like Rand Paul and Ted Cruz will likely be competing for the top spot in Iowa’s caucus. 

In New Hampshire, Christie likely has a structural advantage, as there are many other northeastern moderate Republicans who will vote in the primary.  However, New Hampshire also has a sizable libertarian and tea party voter population, which could swing things in Paul’s or Cruz’s favor.  If Christie loses New Hampshire, it would likely be a death knell to his campaign.  If he were to win, he would have to find a way to survive the way John McCain did throughout the next early states in 2008. 

South Carolina will not be friendly turf for Mr. Christie, and both Nevada and Michigan are states that have a more libertarian-oriented GOP electorate, something that will help Paul.  Governor Christie’s only hope then is to make it to Florida and hope that it’s older and more moderate Republican electorate will save the day.  That is a far shot though, as both Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush are likely to run for President and will probably grab a large share of the vote.

Overall, does this sound like another northeastern moderate Republican who was considered the front-runner two years before the election only to not be able to win any primaries and holding out until Florida?  If you are reminded of Rudy Giuliani, that is because he had essentially the same path to victory.  Worse for Christie, he will be going up against a field that is much stronger than 2008’s. 

Many will point out that, if history is any guide, Christie has a very plausible path to victory: the same path that other GOP moderates like John McCain and Mitt Romney followed.  But that is a dubious argument.  Both McCain and Romney (especially Romney) faced a very weak field.  The same will not be true for Christie.  The Republican party will have had seven building years since the 2008 election in which potential candidates such as Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Paul Ryan, and Marco Rubio have cultivated their own large followings.

I’ve always been a bit bearish on Governor Christie’s chance at getting the nomination, but I truly don’t see his chances getting any worse after this latest flap.  It is ironic that the candidate who polls the best among the general election (read: independents) will likely do the worst among the field of GOP contenders. 

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