November 4, 2013
N.J. Gov. Chris Christie (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in May. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

Expect, after tomorrow’s gubernatorial election in New Jersey, a media surge for Chris Christie’s 2016 presidential campaign. (Paul Waldman, in a very smart item, explains why that’s the case; don’t miss his important point about “authenticity” as well.) Because nomination polling well in advance of  primaries and caucuses is mainly about name recognition and which candidate is currently in the news, expect that coverage surge to produce a polling surge, too, just as the shutdown appeared to help Ted Cruz in the polls.

When we talk about Christie, we usually end up talking about his personality. So it’s worth a quick refresher on the importance of candidates in presidential elections.

The short version? Candidates matter a lot in nomination politics; they matter hardly at all in presidential general elections.

The slightly longer version: In general elections, votes are driven mainly by party, and secondarily by voters’ retrospective evaluation of the incumbent party. Everything else: candidate, campaign, specific issues outside of the party context … it’s sloppy to say that they “don’t matter,” but the truth is that they matter only on the margins.

Most voters view and interpret the candidates through partisan lenses; in effect, we decide who we’ll vote for first and then decide that we like him or her after that.  My party’s candidate is flexible; yours is a flip-flopper. Mine is studious and eloquent; yours is an elitist. Mine is authentic, a real person; yours can’t control his or her temper.

While voter impressions of candidate personalities can matter, they’re not likely to matter very much. Of course, in a close race, “not very much” may be enough. So we shouldn’t ignore this factor, but it’s almost certainly going to be overrated by a lot of pundits.

On the other hand, in the battle for nomination, candidates (including their personalities) are very important. Both party actors (everyone from politicians to activists) and the larger primary electorate are going to be looking for ways to differentiate among candidates, and it’s certainly plausible that personality will play a major role in distinguishing between seemingly identical contenders.

It’s likely that any consensus among party actors will be passed along to voters, and in most cases accepted by them. Very simply, if Republican activists, donors, campaign and governing professionals, politicians, and formal party officials and staff decide that they like Chris Christie, then the odds are good that Fox News and other party-aligned press outlets are going to pass along to voters an “authenticity” version of the candidate; if there’s a consensus against him, then the party-aligned press will interpret his behavior harshly. It’s possible that rank-and-file voters will come to their own conclusions and reject the view of party actors, but it’s not very likely.

So while personality and perceived personality may prove very important in the nomination phase, they will be almost certainly marginal in the fall 2016 election.