Is Chris Christie the odd man out? How rapidly developing GOP '16 field hurt him

It seems unthinkable that Chris Christie wouldn't run. But where, really, is the space for him?

By Jim Newell
Published February 13, 2015 7:00PM (EST)
  (Reuters/Carlo Allegri)
(Reuters/Carlo Allegri)

Not all of the seven million humans considering a run for the GOP presidential nomination are actually going to go through with it. The ones who are quite obviously pretending to run to get attention will not go through with it, though who knows how long they will go on pretending. (Pretending works!) But then there are the candidates who are seriously considering, have been seriously considering for a while, are talking to donors and consultants and local officials in New Hampshire and Iowa, but may ultimately opt out. There's just not enough space in there for all of these figures, especially if they occupy a slot and serve the same constituency that a better, or at least more well-funded, candidate does.

Who's the odd man, or men, out? The person or persons that everyone always assumed would run and have a decent chance but may have missed their window?

Let's talk about Chris Christie.

After his re-election as governor of New Jersey in 2013, Chris Christie was instantly dubbed the presumed frontrunner for the nomination in the press, which tells you all you need to know about the value of the press dubbing someone the presumed frontrunner for the presidential nomination three years out.

One of the very important things Christie had going for him was his access to vast sums of cash. Rich business-wing Republican Wall Street donor people loved the guy. He was the one they begged to join the race, late in the process, in 2012. They liked how he yelled at unionized teachers and everyone else. He spoke their language, a fiscal conservative who kept his distance from the friskier elements of the conservative movement.

But then there was... something about a bridge? A bridge named after a certain Founding Father? Even though he thinks he's done with that scandal, that scandal, and new scandals that revolve around his similarly dicey way of doing business, are not done with him.

In the meantime, the donors who once saw Christie as their savior seem more interested these days in just throwing their money at Jeb Bush. They also like Marco Rubio, for some reason, as well as Scott Walker. This puts Christie in a loose fourth place on the "establishment" track. (Though Scott Walker is more of a crossover between that conservative-movement track, which is why he's such a threat.) And there aren't four tickets to the establishment track.

NBC News has a sad look at how all of Chris Christie's biggest boosters from just a couple of years ago are, well... sort of done with him:

The signs of Christie's decline are subtle but telling as Republican strategists, operatives and donors are trying to determine which candidates to back early in the 2016 process. New Jersey State Sen. Joe Kyrillos, who chaired Christie's 2009 gubernatorial campaign, attended a small dinner with Jeb Bush and some of Bush's supporters last month and refused to commit to Christie in an interview with the Newark Star-Ledger after the dinner....

Gary Kirke, who was part of a group of Iowa Republicans unsatisfied with Mitt Romney and who flew from the state to Trenton to implore Christie to run four years ago, says he is now open to supporting other candidates. Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who had also unsuccessfully pushed Christie to run in 2012, attended a luncheon in support of Bush this week, according to the New York Observer....

Wall Street and blue-state donors, even in nearby Connecticut and New York, have lined up to back Bush, the party's policy wonks are more excited about Rubio and party donors who don't want a third Bush presidency are looking closely at Walker.

"A lot of these guys that begged him [Christie] to run in that race in '12, they are not necessarily with him," said Craig Robinson, the former political director of the Iowa Republican Party. "This is a hard lesson that every cycle is different. There were a lot of people saying 'you need to do this' four years ago. Now there are a lot of different faces on the scene and maybe they won't feel so compelled to get you in this race."

The best thing Christie had going for him was his strong 2013 re-election numbers. Not just that he won in a blue state with 60-something percent, but that he had serious inroads among traditionally Democrats constituencies. He won the Hispanic vote and got about 20 percent of the African-American vote, which counts as "extremely good" for a Republican. He had the broad, cross-demographic appeal that's so rare for a prominent Republican politician in this iteration of the party.

We use the past tense in describing this, because Chris Christie is no longer very popular in New Jersey. Some might even say he's quite unpopular! Look at these fresh new numbers:

A majority of New Jersey registered voters view Governor Chris Christie unfavorably, a poll showed on Friday, underscoring the headwinds the outspoken Republican could face in securing his party's nomination for the 2016 presidential election.

The poll by Rutgers-Eagleton noted that "for the first time" a majority, 53 percent, were unfavorably inclined toward the governor, according to a statement.

It said 37 percent of registered voters in the state felt favorably toward the governor, down 7 percentage points in two months.

The poll also found more people in the state now disapprove of the job Christie is doing: 52 percent disapprove while 42 percent approve.

And there goes his best argument: that he's the model for how conservatives can win over a broad swath of the electorate. He will continue throwing around his 2013 re-election numbers, for sure -- and then all the other candidates will point out that it's not 2013 anymore, and Chris Christie in 2015 is very, very unpopular in his home state.

Chris Christie will still probably run, because he really wants to be president. But there's plenty of reasons to believe that, if he does so, it may not matter all that much. Not that long ago, it would have been shocking to think that Chris Christie wouldn't run for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination. If he opts against it, now, though, it wouldn't come as all that surprising.

Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

MORE FROM Jim Newell