As expected, a landslide win from Chris Christie in New Jersey is producing a media surge for his presidential campaign. As I said the other day, expect that to produce a polling surge soon. This early in the process, horse race polls mainly reflect who is in the news (including the most basic test, whether voters have even heard of the contenders).
That media and polling surge, however, are essentially transient. That’s not to say, however, that they don’t matter towards the nomination. What they do, before they evaporate when the next candidate gets a turn in the spotlight, is give Christie an opportunity to sell himself to Republican party actors.
Or, more to the point, it gives Christie one more feature that he can try to peddle to Republican party actors.
But he’s not the only one who is or will be selling himself to Republican politicians, formal party officials and staff, campaign and governing professionals, activists, party-aligned interest groups, and the party-aligned press. Nor is he necessarily the only candidate in his general niche. Nor does the fact that he is today the most prominent contender in his niche mean that he will still be most prominent six moths or even six weeks from now. There are almost a dozen others, some only hinting publicly at a campaign so far (such as, say, John Thune), and others who have been (probably) prematurely written off by much of the media (such as, say, Marco Rubio).
That’s not to say that Christie isn’t a serious player. He easily fits the criteria I always use for viable nomination candidates: He has conventional credentials as a twice-elected governor, and he basically fits comfortably within the mainstream of his party on questions of public policy. But so do Rubio, Thune, Scott Walker and Paul Ryan. And Mike Pence, John Kasich, Bobby Jindall, Rick Perry and Mike Huckabee. And, I suppose, Jeb Bush. And a few others.
Which is exactly why the nomination process begins with a long, drawn-out “invisible primary” period in which the candidates work for the support of party actors — and party actors work to coordinate on a nominee and to compete for influence within the party. It’s difficult to know how that process is working out without knowing exactly how influential various groups are within the party. And since nominations are, in one way of looking at it, the process in which parties define themselves, it may not even be clear to anyone at this stage just who the key players will be this time around. All of which makes it tricky to identify an “establishment” which can safely be said to back one or another candidate, especially at this early point.
That doesn’t mean that speculation (and, especially, good reporting) is worthless; we can identify specific policy positions which may make particular party groups unlikely to back a candidate, or even to attempt to exercise a veto. But how it all plays out can be quite complex.
So we can definitely say, for example, that Republicans who are looking for a candidate who can win will probably, after yesterday, be more favorably disposed towards Christie — whether he’s actually more likely to win in November 2016 or not, they’re certainly likely to perceive that he can. And, as John Sides points out, the history of out-parties is that they tend to care about that, especially the longer they’ve been out of the White House. But how that applies to this particular party at this particular time, and how it positions Christie against other candidates — some of whom will win their own landslides in November 2014 — is still an open question.