Will Christie's Strengths Be Undercut By Scandal?

James A. BarnesContributing editor
January 13, 2014, 6:00 PM GMT+0

It's unknowable how far Christie could fall, but many Republican operatives and power brokers saw him as best positioned for a future Presidential run.

There’s little doubt that presidential prospects of New Jersey Republican Gov. Chris Christie are going to be hurt—at least in the short run—by the scandal over a bridge ramp closing in Fort Lee engineered by some of his top political aides as retribution for the decision by that city’s Democratic mayor not to endorse Christie for re-election last year.

How deep the negative fallout is, is unknowable right now. But what is much easier to comprehend is how much Christie has to lose as someone who many Republicans operatives and power brokers were focusing on as a leading contender for their party’s 2016 nomination.

Christie had already been identified by GOP insiders—before the scandal lapped up to his Trenton office—as the potential contender who had done the best job positioning himself for a future White House run. And insiders in both parties had singled him out by as the “most interesting” political leader to watch for 2016.

Those were some of the key findings of a YouGov elite opinion survey of 100 Democratic and 117 Republican Party activists and operatives, including media consultants, pollsters, lobbyists and interest group leaders, conducted January 3-8.

Asked to look ahead to the next presidential contest and identify “which one of the potential 2016 candidates for President did the best job positioning himself or herself” for a future run, 38% of the Republican insiders picked Christie, followed by 31% who named former Secretary of State, and Democrat, Hillary Rodham Clinton. Texas GOP Sen. Ted Cruz was ranked a distant third by Republican operatives at 8%.

Overall, 28% of the respondents in this survey also said that Christie was the candidate “to watch in 2016,” outdistancing Clinton who garnered 15%. Even Democratic insiders were marginally more interested in following Christie than Clinton.

So what makes Christie a politician to watch? What’s the attraction?

Some Republican operatives took a conventional pragmatic view, citing Christie’s ability to woo independents and prevail in a Democratic state like New Jersey, as cause for their interest in him.

"As a Republican, he can win in a very blue state,” said one GOP Insider. “Tough, and ability to win in a blue state,” said another.

Democrats also recognized Christie’s appeal to voters beyond the GOP conservative base. “He as the potential to bring the GOP into alignment with the political center,” said one Democrat. “He is one of the few that is being discussed for president that can be truly described as a centrist,” echoed another Democrat.

But what made Christie particularly interesting to many Republican insiders was his personality that seemed to transcend the normal bounds for politicians.

“He is a force,” said one Republican insider. “Fascinating character who also gets things done,” said another. “He’s a straight talker,” added a third. “He breaks the political mold” averred another. Christie possessed a “new style of politics,” gushed a GOP insider.

As one Republican simply said: “He’s got it.”

Even a few Democrats concurred. “He defies the conventional wisdom ad operates outside the box,” said one Democratic insider. “Larger than life character!” declared another.

But now that Christie has had to fire a top deputy and seen others resign over their apparent roles in the scandal, many of these attributes are at risk or open to another not so attractive interpretation.

It’s harder for Christie to come across as a “straight talker,” after he’s had to spend close to two hours at a press conference on January 9 deflecting responsibility for, or even knowledge of the scandal. And questions from local and national reporters about what he knew and when he knew it are likely to persist. Christie will be also called upon to explain how he created and tolerated a team of advisers who operated so pettily.

Suddenly Christie seems less like an avatar for a “new style of politics” and more like a typical politician. His toughness to get things done can now also be interpreted as brutish behavior to get what he wants.

But if the New Jersey governor’s fall from grace ends up being a hard one, some insiders will be able to say they always had their doubts about Christie.

“He is a work in progress; will he soar or crash and burn?” asked one Democratic insider. “Like a lot of politicians, I think we will see him rise at a fairly steady pace and then fall quickly,” said another.

Even a Republican insider who called Christie the “front runner” for GOP nomination wondered, “Will he mess it up?”

-- James A. Barnes

James A. Barnes is a veteran Washington journalist who created the National Journal Political Insiders Poll and conducted elite surveys for CNN during the 2012 Republican presidential nominating contest. The YouGov Political Insiders Survey is comprised of interviews with leading players in political and policy campaigns in Washington D.C. and in state capitals around the country.

Topline results can be found here.
Detailed survey results can be found here.

Image: Getty Images

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