Who Needs Christie When We Have Trump?

Postmortems rarely solve the mystery of political deaths.  Yet we tend to search for clues that suggest why some wannabes fall by the wayside while others manage to keep in the race.

Money matters, of course, though elections are harder to buy in a cyber-world.  And it is a mistake to assume that voters necessarily cling to a rigid political philosophy like life rafts in a turbulent sea.  Too much time is spent among Republicans, for example, arguing over who is more "conservative" than whom, and who said what about which issue when and where.  

Make no mistake: a contender's position on the issues is important.  People relate best to those who think as they do.  But they also tell pollsters that they want someone who can find common ground.  These two virtues are often at odds, since the longer candidates serve in public office, the more vulnerable they are to have their compromises misconstrued as inconsistencies.  Purists may view candidates through the prism of ideology, but for most of the electorate, choosing a candidate, like choosing a mate, is not simply a marriage of the minds.

Intangibles such as "image" play a vital role in the selection process.  Recognizing this, candidates attempt to present themselves as having unique qualities setting them apart from the competition.  Such pitches do not always resonate with voters. As a result, more than half of the GOP presidential candidates have suspended their campaigns.

Among the latest to do so was Chris Christie, whose decision to throw his hat in the presidential ring was neither ill-conceived nor hasty.  On the contrary, he already had the sort of name recognition most candidates dream of.  He had established his image as a fighter and vote-getter across party lines.  And like Hillary, he had more or less been running for higher office for years.

Without doubt, Christie was damaged by the Bridgegate scandal, and – even worse in the eyes of some – his infamous "embrace" of President Obama on the Hurricane Sandy-ravaged coast of New Jersey.  In reality, that hug was nothing more than a friendly hand on the shoulder of the chief executive, who had just arrived to assess the damage and award millions in federal aid.  As for Bridgegate, Governor Christie was completely absolved of any wrongdoing and even prior knowledge of the incident.

But in politics, where accusations can linger well beyond absolutions, these became Governor Christie's crosses to bear.  So, to a large extent, was his weight.  For a while in the run-up to his candidacy, he seemed to slim down.  Once on the campaign's rubber chicken circuit, however, his girth mushroomed.  And while everyone in America condemns our epidemic of obesity, it remains politically incorrect to criticize those who are overweight.  Nevertheless, Chris Christie's appearance was a deciding factor for some voters, even though it never appeared on a survey form.

But neither his poundage nor his politics was the main reasons for Christie's bottom-feeder status in both primaries.  Nor did anybody fault him for his performances in the debates.  He's a forceful, glib, and engaging speaker who can skillfully cut to the chase on contentious questions.  And he was particularly adept at wheedling his way into time allotted for his rivals.

Yet Christie's high debate scores never really translated into rising poll numbers.  At one point, he was even relegated to the second tier of candidates. Unlike Rand Paul, however, he appeared in that "pre-debate" and outshone his opponents.  By the next debate, his uptick in the polls had landed him back on the main stage.

In spite of these efforts, Christie barely rose above the lower single digits once Donald Trump entered the race.  Without political chops or even a proper audition, The Donald co-opted the role that had been intended for the governor of New Jersey: a tough, brash, fearless, plain-talking, no-holds-barred candidate, full of beans and braggadocio.

What happened in short order was that one of them, dressed impeccably, was standing at center stage in the GOP debates, while the other, wearing a baggy suit, was leaning on the last lectern in the candidate lineup.  And while Trump was exuding a certain celebrity glam and attracting huge audiences, Chris Christie, looking more like a comfortable shoe, was settling for far less.

To exacerbate matters, he was feeling the competition from his fellow governors.  Conventional wisdom had decreed that this would be a presidential primary in which state governors – Washington outsiders, in effect – would have the best chance of winning.  Yet the first to withdraw from the race for the White House was Governor Scott Walker, followed by former governors Jindal, Pataki, and Huckabee.  The remaining gubernatorial twosome, Bush and Kasich, didn't fare all that much better than Christie in general polling and in the Iowa caucuses.  And then in New Hampshire, in spite of his being an East Coast maverick, Christie earned not a single delegate vote.

For a sharp, experienced guy, the long weeks of frustration and disappointment must have been unbearable.  In the last debate, he took on one of the two senators still in the race.  Maybe he figured he had little to lose by lashing out at Marco Rubio, like a drowning man trying to bring a stronger swimmer down with him.

But politics, like misery, makes strange bedfellows, and Chris Christie has already signaled his willingness to serve his country in any capacity.  He enjoys a fine reputation for his time as U.S. attorney for New Jersey, and if a Republican wins the White House, perhaps Christie will be invited to assume a cabinet post.  In the meantime, a smaller, bloodier battle for the Republican nomination slogs on without him.