Chris Christie Should Have Run For President In 2012

On Tuesday night in New Hampshire, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie announced he was running for president. But the announcement came about 12 years too late.

Since passing on a presidential campaign in 2012, when he was still a popular first-term governor, Christie has become the poster child for not striking when the political iron is hot. By the time he did run for president, in 2016, his star had fallen — and he arguably starts this campaign in an even worse position. Like in 2016, his biggest impact on the 2024 Republican primary could be in helping to take down a front-runner — but he’s so disliked, even that may be futile.

To be blunt: If Christie wanted to be president, he missed his chance by not running in 2012. “Now is not my time,” he said at a press conference announcing his decision on Oct. 4, 2011. Except, in retrospect, it was the best chance he was going to get. In September 2011, he was riding high: A Fairleigh Dickinson University poll gave him a 54 percent approval rating and only a 36 percent disapproval rating in New Jersey, remarkable numbers for a Republican in a blue state. A national poll from YouGov/The Economist showed him tied with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney for first place in the Republican presidential primary. And Republican elites had spent months trying to draft him into a weak GOP field. The national polling leader, Romney, sat at only 22 percent in the RealClearPolitics average at the time — a level of support that, from 1972 to 2016, has implied only about a 1-in-5 chance of winning the nomination, according to an analysis by my colleague Geoffrey Skelley. 

But just a few years later, all that Christie curiosity evaporated. After he won reelection in a landslide in 2013, news broke that Christie aides had closed traffic lanes on the George Washington Bridge in order to create traffic problems in Fort Lee, New Jersey, to retaliate politically against the city’s mayor, who hadn’t endorsed Christie for reelection. The scandal permanently torpedoed Christie’s approval ratings in New Jersey:

And according to Monmouth University polling, his net favorability rating among Republican registered voters nationally fell from +36 points (54 percent favorable to 18 percent unfavorable) in July 2013 to -17 points (26 percent to 43 percent) in June 2015.

Christie nevertheless jumped into the presidential race at the end of that month. When he did, he ranked only eighth nationally with 4 percent support, according to FiveThirtyEight’s polling average. For the rest of the campaign, not a single poll showed him doing better than 6 percent in Iowa or 13 percent in New Hampshire, and he dropped out after finishing sixth in the Granite State. 

Today, Christie’s campaign is starting with even less reason for hope. He has not exceeded 3 percent in a single poll — national or state — of the full primary field so far this year. He hasn’t been an elected official for more than five years now, so he’s less in the national spotlight: According to Media Cloud, only 676 online articles from national news outlets mentioned him in the past month, compared with 1,306 in the month before his 2016 campaign launch. And after breaking with former President Donald Trump over his false claims that the 2020 election was stolen, Christie is more unpopular than ever among Republican registered voters: His national net favorability rating in the latest Monmouth poll was -26 points (21 percent to 47 percent).

Then again, Christie may know all this. There’s even a theory that he’s running for president not to win, but to slay the dragon that is Trump’s front-running campaign — a dragon, it must be noted, that Christie played a key role in enabling as the first governor or senator to endorse Trump’s 2016 campaign (after his own campaign ended, of course). But Christie has spent the last couple of years publicly attacking Trump as a “coward” and a “child” who “undermined our democracy.” That’s a level of anti-Trump vitriol that has so far been absent from the 2024 primary, despite Trump getting indicted and being found liable for sexual abuse.

Christie could impact the race simply by making the case against Trump; even if he doesn’t personally benefit from it, a slew of aggressive attacks on the front-runner could take the wind out of Trump’s sails and shift support toward, say, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. As a template, look no further than what Christie did to Sen. Marco Rubio in 2016. In a debate just days before the New Hampshire primary, Christie lit into Rubio for his inexperience and canned talking points. After Rubio finished fifth in New Hampshire, a narrative emerged that Christie had mortally wounded his campaign.

Christie has all but said this is his strategy again in 2024. “You better have somebody on that stage who can do to him what I did to Marco, because that’s the only thing that’s gonna defeat Donald Trump,” he explained in March. 

There are just a few problems with that. First, Christie’s impact on the 2016 race is probably overstated. Yes, Rubio went from polling at 16 percent in New Hampshire on the day of the debate (according to FiveThirtyEight’s average at the time) to winning just 11 percent in the actual primary. But Trump certainly didn’t owe his win in New Hampshire to Christie: Trump was already the odds-on favorite before the debate. And Rubio actually recovered somewhat to finish second in both South Carolina and Nevada — but at that point, it didn’t really matter, since Trump was well on his way to winning the nomination.

Moreover, in order for Christie to be “on that stage” to attack Trump this year, Christie will need to satisfy the Republican National Committee’s criteria to qualify for the debates: Candidates will need to receive at least 1 percent in three separate polls and have at least 40,000 donors. Given Christie’s moribund support, he may not even meet those standards and make the debates.

Finally, even if Christie gets a platform from which to attack Trump, it may not even make a difference. Remember, almost half of Republicans dislike Christie (and 77 percent think well of Trump), so they probably wouldn’t be too receptive to Christie’s arguments. Christie’s attacks on Trump might not land that much better than attacks on Trump from the mass media or President Biden — two other entities that are unpopular with Republican voters. Sure, Christie might have some credibility that those two don’t because he’s a fellow Republican, but don’t count on that. As Michael Tesler recently wrote for FiveThirtyEight, Republicans’ devotion to Trump is so strong that they stop considering Republican politicians to be conservative after they start criticizing Trump.

Probably no one will be shocked to learn that Christie has a vanishingly small chance of becoming the Republican nominee for president. Though he once had that potential, his window of opportunity closed long ago. Instead, his best shot at making a difference in this race is as an attack dog. But it’s fair to wonder whether he is now too irrelevant to be effective even at that.

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