A Bridge Too Far?


Cade Baxter

Has Chris Christie lost his position as the potential political savior of the GOP, and if so, can he regain it? At this point it is apparent that the scandal quickly becoming known as “Bridgegate” has unleashed a torrential downpour of negativity and intense scrutiny on the Chris Christie administration. The revelation that a supposed traffic study that closed down several lanes of traffic on the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee, New Jersey was in reality an act of political retribution against Fort Lee’s mayor has added fuel to the fire for critics of Christie who allege that he is a bully.

What’s more, Bridgegate is only the tip of the iceberg as far as burgeoning scandals go. The mayor of Hoboken is now claiming that the Christie administration intentionally withheld Hurricane Sandy relief funds after she refused to approve a real estate development deal that Christie favored. A former candidate for the New Jersey state legislature alleges that Christie attempted to intimidate him by canceling plans to appoint him as New Jersey’s first physical fitness ambassador after he launched his campaign. Perhaps most damaging to Christie personally is a FBI probe investigating whether he misused Sandy relief funds to produce tourism ads starring him and his family.

The effect of these scandals is just now becoming apparent in Christie’s poll ratings, from which the boost he received from Hurricane Sandy around this time last year has almost completely vanished. A new ABC News/Washington Post poll shows that national perceptions of him have become markedly more negative; only 35 percent of Americans now view him favorably, whereas 40 percent view him unfavorably. This is a sharp drop-off from last June, when a Gallup poll showed that 52 percent of voters viewed him favorably. His numbers are faring better in New Jersey, but unfortunately for him, if he decides to run for the presidency, it is the nation, not just his own state, that will determine if he succeeds or fails.

There is no doubt that this decline spells trouble for Christie. Going forward, he will most likely have less public support for many of the items on his agenda and will be forced to compromise more with the Democratic legislature. This will hurt his list of accomplishments that he can run on, but it might also help him in an unexpected way. Part of the reason that Christie enjoyed such high public opinion numbers prior to Bridgegate was that Democrats were more likely to support him than other Republicans because, as a Republican governor in a blue state, he was practically forced to work with Democrats in New Jersey. It’s possible that the recent attempts by his administration to secretly dole out political revenge were based on arrogance arising from that support. However, now that these revelations about his administration have come to light, his Democratic support has eroded. Absent widespread public approval, Christie, just as he did when he first took office, will have to work and compromise with Democrats rather than push only his own policies. This, in turn, could attract some of the Democratic voters whose goodwill he has lost, as well as bolster the bipartisan credentials that pundits frequently tout as his best advantage over rival Republicans.

However, such a theory is only conjecture at this point, and if you want to see just how much Christie’s chance at securing the Republican nomination has been damaged, perhaps it’s best to look at the poll numbers for other potential candidates.  In October, during the middle of the government shutdown that Ted Cruz was at least partially responsible for, a Gallup poll found that 26 percent of Americans viewed him favorably, whereas the number of those who viewed him unfavorably doubled from 18 to 36 percent.  Similarly, an MSNBC poll from September puts Rand Paul’s favorable/unfavorable ratings at 23/24 percent.

Granted, both polls were conducted during a time when national opinion was turning against the GOP, so perhaps their numbers are merely a reflection of a general trend rather than distaste for a particular person. However, both Cruz and Paul were major players in the government shutdown and debt ceiling debacle, it is also possible that those numbers are true reflections of the public’s views of those individuals. If so, Christie might have lost some ground, but he is by no means out of consideration for the nomination. Besides, looking back on the 2012 Republican primaries, a good lesson to remember is that the candidate with the most consistent support stands the best chance of winning the contest in the end. Christie might not be the most popular candidate now, but if he can maintain a solid level of support, much as Mitt Romney did, then his circumstances are not as dire as they appear.

Even taking all this into consideration, the most important thing to keep in mind when judging Christie’s chances is that the Iowa caucus is still two years away. There is still plenty of time for him to regain his position as front runner, for him to fall even further behind, or for a dark horse candidate to emerge and eventually steal the nomination. Bridgegate might have hurt Christie’s numbers right now, but that is not to say that he has fallen beyond redemption.

[Image credit: http://thenypost.files.wordpress.com/2014/01/christie_state_of_the_state_87165037.jpg]