Chris Christie and GOP Primary Voters, Not So Perfect Together

As an aficionado of American regional resentment and distrust, not to mention someone who grew up in the Garden State, I find the question of whether Chris Christie could take his Jersey style national and win the hearts of Republican presidential primary voters to be quite interesting. Would a party whose center of gravity lies firmly in the South being willing to seriously consider not just a guy from New Jersey, but a guy who is obviously from New Jersey? Christie recently told the New York Post that he had lap-band surgery a couple of months ago, so by the time the Iowa caucuses roll around, he could look a little less like Bobby Bacala and a little more like the kind of rugged outdoorsman Republicans favor. But will that be enough? Yesterday, Philip Klein of the Washington Examiner argued that the answer is going to be no:

Also, beyond any given issues, it’s questionable how Christie’s brash New Jersey style will play out beyond the Northeast. When Rudy Giuliani ran for president, his post-Sept. 11 rock star status faded over the course of the GOP primary. No doubt, he had a lot of problems that have been well reported, such as his liberal views on social issues, his messy personal life and his poorly managed campaign. But one thing I kept running into among voters in early states when covering the campaign was that his background as a New Yorker was a real turnoff and made voters view him as rude and somehow shady. As somebody who grew up in the New York/New Jersey area, I underestimated how repellant it could be. Christie has developed a national following for the YouTube clips of his epic confrontations with his adversaries. On the campaign trail with Mitt Romney around Iowa and New Hampshire during the 2012 primary season, Christie would be brought on the stage for a few minutes to do his New Jersey tough guy shtick. But I wondered at the time, and still wonder, whether the act would wear thin over the course of a long campaign.

As Jonathan Chait says, "I think the Northeastern-based news media has always underestimated this problem for Christie. We're aware that people in the Northeast hate the Republican Party, but much less aware that it works the other way around, too." I don't doubt that's true, but over the course of a long campaign, voters' feelings about a region are going be absorbed into their feelings about that particular candidate. They might put it down to the place he's from if you ask them, but it's going to be about him as an individual. I'd have to agree with Klein, though, that the thing that attracted Christie to committed Republicans is going to be tough to sustain.

Christie's appeal to Republicans was always more about style than substance. It wasn't that they loved some program he passed or his innovative thinking on transportation or something; what they liked about him was the way he wasn't afraid to be a jerk to people they hate. For most politicians, the default mode is an exaggerated politeness; you won't get far if you go around insulting people. But Christie's rise to national prominence came after YouTube videos of him being rude and dismissive at public meetings went viral. In the videos, he could be seen berating teachers, or young people, or somebody who was obviously liberal, and conservatives said, "This guy is great!" It didn't hurt that it happened when they were becoming resigned to the fact that their 2012 nominee was going to be that most unbearably phony of politicians, Mitt Romney.

Was that a poor basis on which to anoint a superstar? Sure. But politicians become national figures, and sometimes even get to be president, for all kinds of reasons, few of which are all that rational. An unknown state senator named Barack Obama gave one good speech, and suddenly people were talking about him going to the White House, which is ridiculous when you stop to think about it. George W. Bush went from being the entitled/black sheep son of a prominent family to the Texas governor's mansion and presidential frontrunner in no small part because people confused him with his father (that was why he led in all the early polls before the 2000 election). Both of them had the political skill to translate a lucky break into a sustainable climb, but in both cases it could just as easily have been someone else.

So Christie's tough-guy style may have gotten him to the point where a presidential race seems like a reasonable idea, but it isn't enough to get him his party's nomination. I will grant that in front of the cameras, Christie displays an ease and forwardness that few politicians can match. As much as I hate the elevation of "authenticity" as a political virtue, you can call it that if you like; Christie talks like a real person, not like someone measuring his every word. If he thinks you're an idiot, he'll call you an idiot. If he thinks that something many Republicans believe in, like the threat from Sharia law, is "crap" and "crazy," he'll say so.

The problem is, that straightforwardness is only appealing until he turns it on you or an idea you agree with. Then he just seems like a jerk. When it gets him into trouble among Republican primary voters, as it certainly will eventually if he runs for president, he may say, "Hey, I'm from Jersey—we don't mess around." Are they going to buy that? Probably not.

Special bonus: the title of this post is a reference to this awful ad campaign from the 1980s, where then-governor Tom Kean said, "New Jersey and you: puuufect together." Relive the magic:

 

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