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Saturday, July 25, 2015

Candidate Profile: #4. Chris Christie

For background to this series, click here. For previous posts in the series:

Tier 4--They Know They Can't Win
16. George Pataki
(15.5. James Gilmore)
15. Lindsey Graham
14. Carly Fiorina

Tier 3--We Know They Can't Win
13. Rick Santorum
12. Mike Huckabee
11. Donald Trump
10. Bobby Jindal

Tier 2--So You're Saying There's a Chance!
9. Rick Perry
8. Ben Carson
7. Ted Cruz
6. John Kasich
5. Rand Paul

We've arrived at the final four! This candidate will be the last one in Tier 2. It's important I reiterate here that this list is a ranking of the most likely Republican nominees, NOT a prediction of how the final delegate count or voting percentages will shake out. For example, due to a variety of reasons, Ron Paul was always a great bet to finish as one of the top four candidates in the last two primaries, but he never would have been ranked as one of four likeliest candidates to win the nomination. Those are two separate and very different lists. Think of it this way: if we ran this primary a thousand times, one of the three candidates in the Top Tier would win it something like 750 of those times.  The other 250 would be split among the other candidates. Here's a guy who I'm guessing would win it only 80 out of those 1000 times, which is still good enough for fourth most. The fourth most likely Republican nominee is . . .

Chris Christie, 52, Governor of New Jersey, 2010-current

Campaign Website and Slogan--www.chrischristie.com--"Telling It Like It Is"

PPFA Slogan--"Vote For Me or I'll Punch You in the Nose"

Ideology on liberal-conservative spectrum (-10 is far left and +10 is far right. A center moderate is 0.): +1.5 (Individual rights: -1; domestic issues: -1; economy: +5; foreign policy: +3). Without question, this number is his biggest hurdle to the nomination. It's not Bridgegate. It's not his embrace of President Obama. It's not his weight. It's not his submerged New Jersey approval rating. . . .

Conservative Rank based on above: 16 of 16. . . . It's the fact that the record says he's the most liberal Republican in the field, and said field will be quick to remind everyone of that if Christie ever gains traction.

Spin from the candidate's campaign--No candidate in this field can better connect with voters than Chris Christie. No candidate can do retail politics this well. If you click on his campaign website, it shows a well-directed, emotional clip of Christie talking to voters, explaining the roots of his blunt directness:
"I get accused a lot of times of being too blunt and too direct and saying what’s on my mind just a little bit too loudly. I have an Irish father and I had a Sicilian mother. . . . My mom was the one who set the rules and set the tone. No suffering in silence, if you’ve got a problem, tell me. She would tell us every time she had a problem, to the point where we were just like, 'Mom, do we have to hear this?' And she’d say, 'Yes, I need to get it off my chest now. There will be no deathbed confessions in this family, you’re going to hear it now.'
"In 2004, my mom got diagnosed with cancer. And all of you who have lost a family member to cancer, you understand what this scene is like. She grabbed my hand and she said, 'Christopher, there's nothing left unsaid between us.' It was an incredibly powerful moment in my life. . . .
"When people wonder why I do the things I do, that moment affirmed for me, forever, that I’m going to be this way. I know if my mom were still alive, she would say to me, 'I taught you that in a trusting relationship, you don’t hold anything back. And if you're going to run for president of the United States and you’re going to ask these people for their vote, that is the single most trusting thing they can do as a citizen, is to give you their support. So you better tell them exactly what you’re thinking and exactly what you’re feeling.'"
The video on his About page continues the theme of honesty and fallibility. Other politicians pretend they have perfect records and all the answers. Christie admits he's made mistakes along the way, but he also says that acknowledging these mistakes helps us learn and improve ourselves. This message will be a breath of fresh air when voters get to meet him.

No candidate has more guts either. When others duck the third rail of politics--entitlements--he grabs it with both hands and says reform is necessary. He is the closest thing we have to Ronald Reagan, who he admires, like all Republicans do, but for different reasons: Reagan could communicate to voters, and he knew when and how to compromise to get things done. Working with a heavily Democratic legislature and constituency has forced Christie to have a record more liberal than Republican governors who are afforded Republican counterparts. And yet, he has remained a strong Republican. His platform, on top of entitlement reform, calls for stronger defense, promoting alternatives to failing education policies, pro-growth tax reform, and incentivizing not only hiring, but working as well.

This is a Republican who in 2013 got re-elected with 60 percent of the vote in a dark blue state. You want to beat a Democrat in November? There's no better candidate.

Spin from opponents--How dare the normally flawless Presidential Politics for America rank Chris Christie this high! He's almost as bad as that RINO John Kasich, to say nothing of being almost the size of an actual rhino. The Bridgegate scandal sent his reputation into a nosedive, evidenced by his 30 percent approval in last month's poll. New Jersey's credit has tanked since he became governor. And who could forget when he gift wrapped the 2012 presidential election to President Obama through his visible admiration of the man at his post-Hurricane Sandy visit? It's one thing after another with this guy, AND, lest we forget, he's the most liberal Republican in the field! This campaign was D.O.A.. Shame on you, PPFA.  Shame!

How do the polls look?--(Hang on, still reeling from that blistering attack... okay, ready.) His Real Clear Politics national average is 2.8 for 9th place. He's hit exactly 3 in the last four polls. In Iowa, his 2.8 is only good enough for 12th place, but it's a state where he's not expected to play well unless he barnstorms it a la Rick Santorum four years ago. Instead, his focus is likely to be on a state more palatable to his moderate views: New Hampshire. The Granite State polls show him at a respectable 5.3 for 7th place, but trending up and just 0.2 behind #8 Ben Carson. In South Carolina, another tough state for a moderate New Jerseyan, he's beating expectations with an average of 5.7, tying him for 8th place with #5 Rand Paul and just 0.3 behind Marco Rubio.

PPFA analysis--The most important thing to take away from those polling numbers is that he's in the pack, which was no sure accomplishment before he declared. His 2.8 national average may not seem like much, but it actually makes him "king" of the bottom half of the field. Consistently clocking in at 3 while no one below him is averaging better than 1.8 means he's almost certainly in the first debate, and, as we saw four years ago when debates catalyzed huge Gingrich and Cain bumps but also a Perry collapse, that's when polls can really move.

His approval among New Jerseyans should also be unpacked. We don't have to think that far back to find the last Republican governor who was unpopular in his Democratic home state before running for president. He was the 2012 Republican nominee. From 538:
By the end of his term, Romney's approval rating in Massachusetts sank to just over 30 percent. It was projecting to go even lower, but he left after four years, unlike Christie who after four years got re-elected by 22 points. By 2012, Romney's approval was still just 35 percent, so home state unpopularity in a Democratic state is by no means a disqualifier for a Republican who wants to be president. The poll that has Christie at 30 percent also has him comfortably above water among New Jersey Republicans with a 50-35 split. He doesn't have to win over Democrats to win the Republican Primary.

A big reason for his plummeting ratings since the election was Bridgegate, but he was cleared of wrongdoing by a Democratic-led committee while still apologizing for not having more oversight of the people he trusted to make good decisions. This national campaign will be a useful way for him to straighten the record.

His liberal record is also misleading. From his perspective, New Jersey's recent financial woes are the fault of the state's Democratic congress who won't let him reduce spending. The American Conservative acknowledges his mostly conservative, with scattered moderate, tendencies. The New Republic explains that at the very least, he's to the right of Rudy Giuliani, who many Republicans seriously considered in 2008.  The Guardian lists all his conservative achievements, especially fiscal ones, asking the question, "Christie did all of this despite a Democratic Legislature in one of the bluest states in the country. What more could conservatives want?"

In sum, I don't think any of these red flags disqualify the Christie campaign from making a run at the Republican Primary. As for his tryst with President Obama after Hurricane Sandy, I actually expect that to turn into an advantage. Speaking of advantages:
  1. Like most of my top contenders, he's an executive, and Republicans love executives. Of their last 18 nominees, 13 were presidents, vice-presidents, or governors. Of the remaining five, two were Dwight Eisenhower (1952 and 56), who was basically an executive when he, you know, defeated Nazi Europe. Two more (Senators Bob Dole in 1996 and John McCain in 2008) were basically lifetime achievement awards. The other was 1964's Barry Goldwater, which can't possibly be rationalized under any circumstances.
    • As a result, my list has twice as many governors than senators in the top six and ten.
    • This pattern, by the way, works against Marco Rubio, #5 Rand Paul, #7 Ted Cruz, and #8 Ben Carson.
  2. He does not carry the stench of a primary loser, a factor which works against #9 Rick Perry, #12 Mike Huckabee, and #13 Rick Santorum.
  3. He is not Donald Trump, a factor which works against #11 Donald Trump (who, despite leading another poll this week, was called a "disaster in general" by the pollster).
  4. And yet, he brings Trump's perceived strength--which I think are speaking emotionally and truthfully, no matter how unpopular--but he's also being a legitimate politician. If Christie has established himself by the time Trump collapses, a lot of that support might move to him and be much more likely to stay with him unlike its flirtation with Trump.
  5. Hurricane Sandy is essentially attack-proof from his fellow candidates. It looks terrible if they blame him for putting his state above politics. Meanwhile, when it inevitably does come up, he will actually look like he cares about people over party, even when a high profile presidential election hung in the balance. Other candidates say they don't care about politics, but rarely do they show it in such a prominent way.
    • Voters will connect to this incident. Sometimes they can't understand education reform or a tax code, but they could easily tell a pollster, "I really like how he didn't care about politics with Hurricane Sandy. He's not a normal politician." Republicans will be slow to warm due to many conservative pundits thinking Christie's actions handed Obama the election, despite Christie's vehement criticisms of the President during all other stages of the campaign. However, independents will absolutely respect Christie for those actions.
  6. As a result, his head-to-head polls with Hillary Clinton will gradually improve, making him seem more and more electable, especially as he constantly beats the "blue state conservative Republican" drum.
  7. Finally, his amazing ability to connect to voters will be extremely valuable in early voting states, where he can do retail for months on end. I don't think any candidate in this race has a better chance to pop like Rick Santorum did four years ago. Santorum did it by visiting all 99 Iowa counties to win over voters--retail politics at its most impressive. Santorum was similarly under water in his own state (soundly defeated for Senate re-election in 2006), but that didn't stop him from being the national runner-up. However, whereas Santorum was always seen as Republican suicide in a general election, Christie will not be. (Runner-up candidate in likelihood to pull off the Santorum pop: #10 Bobby Jindal)
In sum, he aligns the strengths that I've been talking about during this entire countdown--executive, electable, voter connection. For that reason, I see enormous upside to his candidacy.

PPFA nomination rank--4 of 16 (Odds: 12:1). All that being said, I still see his odds at 12:1.  In other words, he has about a 1 in 13 chance of winning the nomination. It's overwhelmingly likely that he won't. While I think it's reasonable to deconstruct most of his drawbacks as a candidate, the fact that all those drawbacks exist mean this primary will be a mountainous, arduous climb for a man who isn't in the best of shape (politically. POLITICALLY!). All of the concerns in tandem make it unlikely he ever catches fire, but I think he has a better chance to catch and sustain that fire than any candidate ranked 5 through 16 on this list.

PPFA general election rank--1 of 16. Reader be warned that I'm making a sort of circular argument. "I rank Christie high in likelihood to be nominated because he's so electable. As proof of his electability, look at how electable I rank him!" I get it. But as I've said before in this category, these candidates are ranked here based on an assumption that they get the nomination. If Christie gets the nomination, it means he clicked with Republican voters mostly due to his Reaganasque communication and electability argument. Christie would necessarily be scoring high with moderates at that point, whereas Clinton will look calculating by comparison to Christie's ostensible earnestness.

Next week is the top tier as we careen toward July 31st's most likely nominee. Is anyone else getting tired? Don't forget to follow me on Twitter @PPFAmerica!

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