WASHINGTON -- There are 49 weeks left until Iowa holds its caucus -- which is good for Chris Christie, because he needs time to recover from this past week. His trip to London drew attention for all the wrong reasons, spotlighting his love for creature comforts and raising questions about funding. He sounded off about vaccines and had to walk back his comments. A U.S. attorney widened its investigation stemming from the so-called Bridgegate episode. And federal investigators were looking into his administration’s quashing of indictments against Christie allies.
One bad week doesn’t doom the New Jersey governor’s expected presidential bid. He isn’t even officially running yet. But Christie’s problems weren’t the result of random misfortune; they were early-warning signs of fundamental weaknesses in his candidacy.
As problematic stories about his administration pile up, he hasn’t taken control of the narrative. He doesn’t have the campaign structure needed to handle crises. He’s off to a slow start on fundraising. And despite his national profile and high name recognition, his poll numbers are lackluster, placing him somewhere around sixth in Iowa and third in New Hampshire.
Christie hasn’t launched an exploratory committee. And his political action committee -- which he’s strangely tried to depict as something he’s barely involved with -- just got started.
“Everything that is happening to him right now would be mitigated if he had a campaign infrastructure,” said a Republican strategist and national campaign veteran who is not currently affiliated with a 2016 candidate.
One of the biggest tests for someone running for president is the people they surround themselves with. And so far, Christie is still running his campaign out of his gubernatorial office with the strategists who were with him during his state run.
He doesn’t have a rapid-response team. When news broke of the expanding Bridgegate investigation and the federal probe around the Hunterdon County quashed indictments, his gubernatorial office was left to handle the response. A well-staffed, well-run campaign would have pulled in a dozen people to respond to such a crisis, with high-level messaging meetings, crafting of talking points for staff and surrogates, and efforts to offer a counternarrative to reporters who could be writing about it.
A source close to Christie pointed to the large number of presidential campaign vets who are already working with Christie: Mike DuHaime, who worked for George W. Bush and Rudy Giuliani; Maria Comella, who worked in 2008 first for Giuliani and then for John McCain; Mitt Romney vets Russ Schriefer and Phil Valenziano; New Hampshire vet Matt Mowers; Republican National Committee alum Cam Henderson; Phil Cox, who came from the Republican Governors Association;, and pollster Adam Geller. All told, that’s a lot of experience. But most of them were with Christie either when he ran for governor or in his role as the head of the RGA. It may be time for someone who brings a fresh perspective.
Of course, staff is only useful in so far as you are willing to empower them. Christie has always operated as his own chief political strategist, and he’s generally seen as an astute tactician. But he may be overconfident. He frequently speaks without prepared remarks, a habit that can signal he’s not receptive to input from others. Given that the measles outbreak was obviously becoming a hot topic -- and that the governor reacted strongly to the perceived threat of Ebola virus disease by quarantining a nurse last fall -- a more assertive team would have known to prep him for the vaccine question and helped craft his response.
Christie’s fundraising operation is still minimal. Like other Republican candidates in recent election cycles, he has a dedicated millionaire backer -- in his case, Home Depot Inc. co-founder Ken Langone. But as Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum discovered in 2012, a single donor isn’t enough to make a candidate competitive, and Christie hasn’t accelerated a search for other sources.
Meanwhile, Jeb Bush is a formidable fundraiser with a deep network of donors that his family began building even before his brother’s first presidential run. (Christie was a bundler for George W. Bush, who later appointed him to the U.S. attorney job that jump-started his political career.) It’s almost certain that when fundraising reports become available in the spring, Bush will have far outpaced Christie.
Christie’s team has argued he isn’t behind at all. He just came off a record-setting fundraising run as the head of the RGA. His network is fresh, and he recently tapped his contacts for money. But as Romney found out, just because people donated in the last campaign cycle doesn’t mean they stick with you.
While fundraising sends a strong signal, when it comes to winning states such as Iowa and New Hampshire, recruiting local activists is just as important. Iowa’s caucus system requires getting a county chair in all 99 counties and supporters for every precinct meeting.
“The money obviously matters -- money matters a lot -- but when it comes to the on-the-ground reality, on caucus night, the focus is going to be on the vote, not who has what money. You’ve got to get those key supporters in place as early as you can,” said David Redlawsk, a pollster at Rutgers University who previously worked at the University of Iowa. “The caucus is a very personal process.”
And Redlawsk said that while it’s too early for a single bad week to sink a campaign among the crowded field of Republican challengers, the activists are paying attention. “They don’t want to see this kind of thing,” he said.
The risk for Christie is that one bad week turns into two, and then 10 -- which turns into a failed campaign. That’s because he will lose the most important battle of all in an election: creating your own narrative. The New Jersey governor has worked to build a persona as a blunt, down-to-earth, straight-talking guy. But he seems less and less like fresh air and more reminiscent of political back rooms.