New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie launched his presidential campaign Tuesday, joining a growing field of Republicans angling to take back the White House. His campaign launch came as the shadow of scandal hangs over his record, sinking his approval ratings with national voters and raising questions about whether he missed his chance to be president when he decided not to run in 2012.
But don't count Christie out just yet. His experience as the executive of a populous, wealthy Northeastern state, national name recognition and knack for working across the aisle to pass ambitious reforms could serve him well in a presidential campaign. And while Christie's brash speaking style can rub many the wrong way, his straight-shooting manner and outsize personality could also help distinguish him in a crowded GOP primary race.
“You have to think of him [as] something like the Beatles when they showed up in America. He doesn’t look like or sound like anyone out there. That makes him very engaging, very different,” said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University in Lawrence Township, New Jersey. “People want to hear what [he has] to say. They want to see him. Everyone else seems like a cookie-cutter version of [a politician].”
Christie has often found himself at the center of controversy. In early 2014, allegations surfaced that members of his administration had authorized the closure of several lanes on the George Washington Bridge, which connects New Jersey and New York City. While Christie has not been directly connected to the bridge closing, the scandal hurt him in national polls and seemed to dent his viability for a presidential run. Still, 55 percent of New Jersey voters said they approve of his job performance in a recent poll.
Christie is known for being a bit aggressive with reporters and hecklers, but he is also well known for his ability to connect with voters in cozy environments like town hall meetings. That’s a trait that could play well for him in the early-voting state of New Hampshire, where he is said to be making the first stop of his campaign.
“The trick with Gov. Christie… is that he’s got a personality, his approach to things, that can work really well. Voters see it as strong leadership, as they did in the aftermath of [Hurricane] Sandy, for example,” said David Redlawsk, a professor of political science and director of the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling at Rutgers University in New Jersey. “I would expect him to play on that to some degree.”
Hurricane Sandy helped propel Christie into the spotlight in 2012. He had already been urged to run for president that year, but he decided against it and instead endorsed former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Still, his crisis management skills helped grow his approval ratings, earning him approval from across the country and propelling him to a landslide re-election victory the next year in a state that President Barack Obama won by 17 points in 2012.
Among his achievements as New Jersey's governor, Christie can also tout major pension and health benefit reforms that his administration passed with the help of Democratic state lawmakers in 2011. Under the initial deal, public workers would pay more into the pension system, and the state would ramp up its contributions, too. Christie’s administration later refused to contribute more from the state and was sued. A state Supreme Court ruling this month, however, vindicated Christie, leading the way for him to cite his pension plan as a victory on the 2016 campaign trail.
Christie will likely wave his experience and leadership as governor over other candidates who haven’t held executive positions. They include U.S. Sens. Marco Rubio, Rand Paul and Ted Cruz and former neurosurgeon Ben Carson.
Should Christie capitalize on the expected bump from his 2016 announcement on Tuesday, it could propel him to a higher place in the polls and help him gain momentum. He is currently polling in sixth place in New Hampshire with 5.6 percent of the primary vote, less than 10 points behind the front-runner there, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, according to an average of polls from Real Clear Politics.
Christie also has the potential to quickly begin to connect with a national network of donors and supporters in key states. In the 2014 midterm election, he campaigned heavily on behalf of Republicans all over the country as the chairman of the Republican Governors' Association. The number of Republican governors in the country rose to 31 in that cycle, and the association raised over $100 million while he was chairman.
“Sometimes you decide to run for president [and] you know the people in your state. But, do you know the top political operatives in your party in every state in the nation because you’ve got relationships with them? With all these donors?” Dworkin said. “If he can build up his momentum, he should have the ability to quickly create” the infrastructure of a big, national campaign.
Christie, 52, was born in Newark, New Jersey, and grew up in nearby Livingston. In high school, he played catcher for the school baseball team and served as student body president.
Christie went to college at the University of Delaware, and attended law school at Seton Hall University School of Law, graduating in 1987. He married wife Mary Pat in 1986. They have four children.