Over the last two weeks, Chris Christie has spent several hours fielding questions from New Jerseyans in two town halls -- the 110th and 111th of his governorship. He's taken questions by the score about the recovery efforts from Hurricane Sandy, answered queries about the state's education system and even fielded one inquiry about whether he would be willing to throw out all of his Bruce Springsteen CDs. (He said he couldn't do it.) One thing no one has asked about? The ongoing investigation into the closure of lanes of traffic in Fort Lee as a form of political payback by some within Christie's Administration.
The lack of Bridgegate questions surprised us and got us to thinking about why no one -- in either of the town halls Christie has held since the story broke -- even mentioned it. We talked with a handful of smart Republican and Democratic operatives in the state to get their theory on the dearth of Bridgegate questions. Here's what we came up with. (And, no, you conspiracy theorists out there, no one -- on either side of the aisle -- suggested that Christie had planted the questioners or somehow ensured friendly questions.)
1) People in New Jersey don't care about the story all that much. That's the answer that Christie and his Republican allies in the state insist is the right one. When asked by WaPo's Bob Costa why no questions on the Fort Lee traffic problems had come up in the first town hall, the New Jersey governor snapped: "People care about real problems." Matt Leonardo, a Republican consultant with experience in New Jersey politics, echoed that sentiment; "Regular people who attend a town hall care about their job, school, property taxes, transportation, Sandy relief, etc.," Leonardo said. "They'd care if he lied but until and unless that's proven they want their issues addressed. And yes, the national media lost all perspective on this issue." Fair enough. Though it's also worth noting that in a mid-January Quinnipiac University poll, 93 percent of New Jerseyans said that they had heard about Bridgegate. Is it possible that everyone in the state is aware of the story but no one is interested enough in it to ask about it?
2) Christie is swimming in friendly waters. Christie's town hall last week was in Manahawkin, New Jersey. That's in Ocean County where Christie won almost 76 percent of the vote in his 2013 re-election race. This week's town hall was in Sterling, which is in Morris County. Christie won Morris with 70 percent last November. Now, simply putting town halls in areas where you did well is no guarantee that all of the questions you get will be on topics you want to answer. But, it improves the odds of a) getting friendlier questions and b) facing fewer follow-ups that won't let you pivot/deflect your way out of them. That's called smart advance work by the Christie team.
3) A little thing called "luck". The governor's method of picking questions appears to be random. At his town hall last week, he called on a man in camouflage for the final question -- noting that he knew he was taking a risk but thought it was worth it. (It was. The guy praised the governor.) Given the seeming lack of pre-screening of the questions, it's possible that Christie has just had a good run of luck in picking out questioners who either aren't interested in Bridgegate or simply don't want to ask the governor directly about it. Luck does run out though.
No matter the reason, the lack of bridge-related questions is somewhat remarkable given the intense focus in both the state and national media on the story. Of course, if Christie continues to do town halls -- and he will -- there will likely come a time in the not-too-distant future where he will face a question about Fort Lee and how his Administration acted. That answer, which you can be certain Christie has rehearsed in his head (and maybe out loud with his aides), will be incredibly closely watched, re-watched, parsed and then re-parsed. It's somewhat amazing it hasn't happened yet.