New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, the presidential field’s nearest carbon copy of post-9/11 George W. Bush Republicanism, is finally “back,” by which I mean he has hit double digits in one poll of one state. But New Hampshire is an important state, one in which he’s been laying the groundwork for gains with constant town halls and where his net favorability has made a swift turnaround in the right direction.
The Republican center-right establishment, which spent most of 2012 and 2013 deifying Christie as the Republican Party’s messiah, has rekindled its faith after a challenging period of doubt. As soon as word got out that the New Hampshire Union Leader would endorse Christie, fleece-jacketed chat show Morning Joe, for example, decamped to New Hampshire to host an episode with Christie and the Union Leader’s opinion editor. Christie once tickled pink the “responsible right” with manufactured YouTube videos of him screaming at his constituents, and we should expect those same boosters to feel all the feelings, once again, if he can successfully wield his brand of tough-dad speak against Donald Trump in a New Hampshire showdown.
If only it were that simple. I hate to be awful and rain on this resurrection. But the last thing that the center right, the establishment, the responsible right, the business Republicans—whatever you’d like to call Republicans who are terrified of Trump winning the presidential nomination—needs right now is a suddenly competitive Christie. Unless he really does catch fire and unify the center right in a way that no other candidate has thus far been able to do, he’s just another warm body earning enough support to divide the anti-Trump vote and deliver New Hampshire into Trump’s short-fingered hands. The establishment doesn’t need new candidates jumping into the mix; it needs them dropping out.
The first poll of New Hampshire since the Union Leader’s endorsement, conducted by Public Policy Polling, vividly illustrates this dynamic. Trump leads with 27 percent of the vote. Good for him. But that’s still only 27 percent, leaving plenty of space for a non-Trump actor to maneuver. The problem is that there are several proud non-Trump establishment actors in the mold of traditional New Hampshire winners vying for the same space: Sen. Marco Rubio earns 11 percent, Chris Christie 10 percent, John Kasich 8 percent, and Jeb Bush 5(!) percent. One of these four candidates, according to my betters, is “supposed” to win New Hampshire and use that as a launching pad for unifying the establishment and its resources behind his candidacy. Instead what they’re doing is divvying up the large pool of center-right support.
New Hampshire is crucial to the establishment because its voters are the most moderate of the three early voting states. It’s not just that it would be best for an establishment candidate, like Sen. John McCain or Mitt Romney, to make an early show of strength by winning it. It’s also important to stop the Iowa winner, typically an anti-establishment crusader, from picking up any further momentum. If Bush, Rubio, Kasich, or Christie loses Iowa, they can soldier on. But their lack of consolidation opens the possibility that Trump or Sen. Ted Cruz—now second in PPP’s poll, at 13 percent—could pull off the elusive Iowa-New Hampshire double and head into the Southern swing, their more natural turf, with serious bragging rights.
If Trump or Cruz pulled off such a feat, the proper collective action response for the establishment would be to tell three of these guys to pop off. Kasich may well exit soon after New Hampshire. But the other three may not have any reason to drop out. Christie, the least resourced of the three, will get all the money he needs from megadonor Ken Langone and his pals if he can put in a not-terrible New Hampshire showing. Rubio, Bush, and their affiliated super PACs will have preposterous amounts of money to work with, for as long as they want. Consider that Bush’s super PAC is currently doing the ad-buy equivalent of lighting money on fire for sport right now, and there will still be plenty left over.
The worst part about these establishment candidates is that they’ll all have pride. Mike Huckabee, Sen. Rand Paul, Rick Santorum, Carly Fiorina, and Ben Carson all know (hopefully?) that they’re not supposed to win. Rubio, Bush, Christie, and Kasich, though, believe that they’re supposed to win. Their likes always win—these are the rules! If Trump and Cruz run all over them through the first few states, they’ll continue to argue that it’s a fad and the “serious” candidates will soon have their opportunity. One imagines them still muttering this to themselves, in a cold-sweated state of delirium, even as they’re watching Trump accept the nomination at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland.
Maybe one of them has what it takes to stop Trump. Four of them don’t.