AP Photo/Mel Evans
AP Photo/Mel Evans

What do the revelations about the Fort Lee traffic jam mean for Chris Christie’s presidential prospects?  Jonathan Chait predicts that the scandal will “probably destroy” Christie’s prospects.  Mike Murphy suggests the scandal may blow over by 2016.

Here’s how I think about this.  At this stage — the “invisible primary” that takes places before the actual caucuses and primaries in 2016 — presidential nomination politics is mainly an elite game.  The important thing is less what voters think than what party leaders think — from elected leaders at all levels of office, to activists, to relevant media outlets and personalities.

Moreover, in Chris Christie’s case, the important subset of party leaders to watch are Republican moderates.  To be sure, this is not who he ultimately needs to appeal to.  To win the nomination, Christie needs to convince conservatives that he’s at least “good enough,” even if he isn’t their first choice.  But at this point in time, conservative Republican leaders have no incentive to signal that Christie is good enough.  They should be trying to steer the nomination toward a more orthodox conservative, and so should signal their opposition to Christie, including in the wake of this scandal. As Brendan Nyhan noted, they already are:

Several leading conservatives, long suspicious of Mr. Christie’s allegiance to their cause, seemed eager to pounce. “The point of the story is that Christie will do payback,” Rush Limbaugh said on his popular conservative radio show. “If you don’t give him what he wants, he’ll pay you back.”

More telling is what Republican moderates do.  Here’s one data point: South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley has expressed support for Christie on her Facebook page (via Jonathan Martin).  She may not be a true moderate, but she endorsed Mitt Romney in 2012 and seems willing to back relatively moderate Republican candidates.  (Though, as Martin notes, see the comments on her Facebook page!  She’s already taking some heat for this.)

If moderates appear to be deserting Christie, then he’s really in trouble.  He’ll have lost the crucial part of his base.