Steve: Chris Christie’s presidential prospects

President Barack Obama is greeted by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie upon his arrival at Atlantic City International Airport, Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2012, in...
President Barack Obama is greeted by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie upon his arrival at Atlantic City International Airport, Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2012, in...
AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

Two weeks after the election, they’re still griping about how lavishly Chris Christie praised Barack Obama during Hurricane Sandy–which, of course, hit New Jersey just days before the election.

I said at the time that there probably wasn’t a political calculation behind Christie’s words–that they were a very understandable and very human response from a man who’d just watched a monster storm ravage the state he loves.

But I also said that his response would nonetheless help Christie politically, and oh how it has. There’s a new poll out from Rutgers today that gives the governor a 67% favorable rating. That’s six points better than Barack Obama, who carried the state by 16 points last month, and includes a 27-point spike from the last Rutgers poll for Christie among Democrats.

We see bounces like this at the presidential level sometimes–think George W. Bush after 9/11, or George H.W. Bush after the 1991 Gulf War. Those examples show how temporary polling surges after major events can be, so Christie will probably fall from his perch a bit in the weeks and months ahead. But he has a buffer now–he can fall a lot and still not have to worry much about winning reelection in 2013.

And that’s very significant. We all know that Christie has national ambitions. He wants to run for president in 2016. But he also loves the job he has, and wants to keep it. And it’s very hard for Republicans to win elections in New Jersey. The state hasn’t sent a Republican to the Senate in 40 years and counting, and Christie’s narrow victory in 2009–a four-point margin, with less than 50% of the vote–counts as the second-biggest Republican landslide in New Jersey in that same period. A loss in his reelection campaign in 2013 would probably take Christie out as a White House candidate in 2016.

But now he’s sitting pretty for next year. Even before Sandy, Christie’s approval rating was over 50% and he appeared likely to draw a second-tier Democratic opponent. But now the situation has more clarity. The strongest Democrat in the state–Cory Booker–has been pretending to be interested in the governor’s race for a few months. It’s how he gets national media attention, and it’s worked. But now the jig is up. Look for Booker to run for the Senate in 2014–against fellow Democrat Frank Lautenberg, if necessary–but not governor next year.

And look for the Obama White House to keep its distance from next year’s governor’s race. Before Sandy, New Jersey Democrats talked of a reelected Obama returning to the state in 2013 to promote their gubernatorial candidate. But now the White House is grateful to Christie–and since Obama won’t be running again in 2016, it’s not like they feel threatened by his ambition. Obama will not save New Jersey’s Democrats next year, either.

Talk to Democrats in New Jersey privately and they admit they won’t beat Christie next year. Which means he’ll get to take that shot at the White House in 2016. And no, I don’t think the nice words he had for Obama a few weeks ago will hurt him with Republicans four years from now. I mean, do you want to be the Republican candidate who tells Christie he shouldn’t have praised the president’s response to a natural disaster destroying his state?

Steve: Chris Christie's presidential prospects