New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie appears to have but one route into the thick of the competition for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination: the John McCain route.
He will schedule town hall meetings in every New Hampshire venue possible and hope for the best. The strategy will require discipline, patience, personality and a good bit of luck. Even then, the odds for success are long.
Such is the state of a politician who four years ago this summer was being heavily courted by some wealthy Republicans in and around New York and some others elsewhere to join the 2012 race. The would-be powerbrokers were nervous about the candidacy of the then-fragile front-runner, Mitt Romney. They admired the decisiveness, bluster and seeming fearlessness that Christie had brought to the governor’s office.
Christie had star power then, certainly among those in the business wing of the Republican Party, but even beyond. Those were heady days, and he was swayed by all the attention, although not enough to join the race. He marveled at receiving a call from former president George W. Bush, who offered counsel but no recommendation. He was ecstatic when his wife, Mary Pat, called to say she had just spoken with Bush’s mother, former first lady Barbara Bush. He later recounted with relish a visit to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and his interactions with Nancy Reagan.
The Christie who announced his presidential candidacy Tuesday bears only some resemblance to the rising politician of four years ago. His descent has been well chronicled, from the peaks of his energy in dealing with the devastation of Hurricane Sandy in October 2012 and his landslide reelection victory in November 2013, to the depths of a bridge scandal (which has touched aides but not Christie directly), economic problems and credit downgrades in his state, and now battles with Democratic legislators whose incentives to work with the Republican governor have mostly disappeared.
He won reelection with 60 percent of the vote. Today, his approval rating in New Jersey is just half that, according to a Fairleigh Dickinson University PublicMind poll released last week. When he won reelection, he got a fifth of the African American vote, about half of the Hispanic vote and two-thirds of self-described independents, according to exit polls. Today, more than half of all Republicans say they are not willing to vote for Christie even in the primaries, according to the latest NBC-Wall Street Journal poll.
The resistance to his candidacy runs across the ideological spectrum of the party — with 64 percent of very conservative Republicans, 54 percent of all conservative Republicans and 58 percent of moderate or liberal Republicans saying they are unwilling to support him. That doesn’t leave him much of a toehold as he starts his campaign.
It is unusual for a politician announcing a presidential bid to promise to make voters cringe. That’s what Christie did Tuesday, saying he would do so “at times” with blunt talk about unpopular topics. It was a variation on the core theme he has adopted for his campaign: telling it like it is. He hopes to turn what some voters find unappealing into an asset.
In many ways, Christie is taking a page from McCain and his Straight Talk Express campaign of 2000. Time for a little straight talk, my friends, McCain would say as he opened his town hall meetings in New Hampshire. The senator from Arizona told corny jokes, bantered and occasionally battled with the people in attendance, said impolitic things and wasn’t worried about differing with others in his party.
Those town hall gatherings were everything to McCain, and he built steadily through the fall of 1999 and into the winter of 2000, waiting in ambush for then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush, who was busy winning Iowa.
McCain won the New Hampshire primary by a margin of 19 points, a stunning upset that catapulted him into the position of principal rival to Bush for the GOP nod. Eventually, he was crushed by the Bush operation, but the strategy today animates Christie’s hopes of rising to the top rank of the nomination contest.
Like McCain, Christie has an ability to connect with voters. Republicans who support him and some who are neutral say Christie’s audiences in New Hampshire this year have been receptive to his style and message. They have come away more open to his candidacy than they might have been when they arrived. His talents as a political communicator in these kinds of settings are among the best in the GOP field.
But there are many differences that put Christie in a more challenging position than even the underdog spot McCain was in 16 years ago. Bush was the dominant front-runner, and what McCain had to do was become the alternative. There is no such front-runner among the current Republican candidates with whom Christie can try to draw a contrast.
The governor is in a field that is likely to number 16 hopefuls with little incentive to drop out before next year’s contests. How can he stand out? By becoming even more bombastic?
Most important is that Christie is far better defined — and defined negatively — than McCain was at this point 16 years ago. It’s worth recalling that when he started his campaign in 1999, McCain was known in Washington but little known nationally. And he had a compelling story to tell, of his military service and his years as a POW in a North Vietnamese prison camp. He could define himself in ways Christie cannot.
McCain relied on New Hampshire again in 2008, this time to revive a campaign that imploded around this time in 2007. He was able to do so in part because of the foundation of support and good will that remained from 2000. Christie does not have that.
Announcing his candidacy in his home town of Livingston, N.J., on Tuesday, Christie displayed some of the attributes that helped propel him to prominence after he was first elected governor in 2009. His advisers think those talents will make him a force in the Republican nomination contest despite the low standing from which he starts. But there is no direct parallel with others who have started low and risen up to surprise. Christie will have to write a new history if he hopes to be successful.