After months in which Chris Christie practically lived in New Hampshire – he spent more days in the state than any other Republican candidate – he would have felt good about a third-place finish. The New Jersey governor probably could have been satisfied with the top four. Given the pre-primary polling, even finishing fifth would have likely kept him in the game.
But when the dust settled, the Republican governor found himself running sixth in the Granite State, a week after coming in 10th in Iowa. Out of options, and facing exclusion from the next GOP debate, Christie had no choice but to call it quits.
“[W]hile running for president I tried to reinforce what I have always believed - that speaking your mind matters, that experience matters, that competence matters and that it will always matter in leading our nation,” he said in a statement to reporters. “That message was heard by and stood for by a lot of people, but just not enough and that’s ok.”
David Plouffe, perhaps best known for his work as President Obama’s 2008 campaign manager, noted yesterday that it’s “rare to see the best political athlete” in a presidential race “never get traction.” Democrats, Plouffe added, “should breath sigh of relief” that Christie won’t be the Republican nominee.
There’s some truth to that. In the crowded GOP field, Christie probably had the best raw political skills of the bunch – he’s more comfortable on the stump than Jeb Bush, more human than Marco Rubio, more likable than Ted Cruz, more disciplined than John Kasich, and more measured than Donald Trump. There’s a reason, as of a couple of years ago, Christie was seen as a likely frontrunner.
But a combination of factors made it practically impossible for Christie to get ahead. For example, his poor governing record, low popularity, and ongoing scandals in New Jersey made the governor’s “electability” pitch very hard to believe. Making matters worse, Christie’s relative moderation led many of the GOP’s factions, most notably social conservatives, to write him off entirely.
His departure from the race, however, need not be irrelevant.
Quick quiz: as of this morning, who’s the leading candidate of the Republican establishment? Is it John Kasich, who finished an impressive second in New Hampshire, but who has limited resources going forward? Is it Marco Rubio, who suffered an embarrassing fifth-place showing this week, and who’s become the subject of widespread mockery? Or is it Jeb Bush, who may be the top choice by default?
These three Republicans, plus Christie, were vying for the same “lane” in the GOP nominating fight. The New Hampshire primary was supposed to bring some clarity to the leader among them, but instead the results only brought more chaos.
Christie’s willingness to walk away makes matters a little less complicated – now there are three people fighting for one mantle, instead of four – but with Donald Trump and Ted Cruz out in front, the blurry image needs to come into sharper focus.
And on this, Christie can help. Slate’s Josh Voorhees argued, persuasively, that an endorsement from the New Jersey governor “would pack considerably more punch than a normal one since many would see it as evidence that the Republican establishment was finally starting to coalesce around a single candidate.”
How and whether Christie intends to use this influence is unclear, at least for now. It’s hard to say with confidence whom he’d back anyway (though my guess would be Jeb).
But if Christie intervenes on someone’s behalf, it’ll matter more than his poll standing would suggest.