Should Chris Christie Just Drop Out Already?

W. James Antle III Managing Editor
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Is Chris Christie toast? The man who was once viewed as the likeliest front-runner for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination now looks like anything but.

The GOP contest can be viewed as two primaries within a primary: the establishment primary and the conservative primary.

Christie is losing the establishment primary to Jeb Bush, as the former Florida governor consolidates the support of donors and Republican political professionals.

The New Jersey governor isn’t really competing in the conservative primary, where Scott Walker is in the lead and several other candidates appear to have meaningful support.

It’s probably even worse than that. If Christie’s undeclared campaign looked like it was going well, Bush probably would have thought twice about getting into the race. There almost certainly wouldn’t have been any Mitt Romney 2016 trial balloons, from either the donors or Team Romney.

The fact that Bush took the plunge and that there was even a flicker of interest in Mitt 3.0 suggested that Republican establishment donors and consultants lacked confidence in Christie.

They did not think Christie could beat a conservative like Walker (or, Fed forbid, Rand Paul) in the primaries. Or they were not convinced he could beat Hillary Clinton in the general election.

A lot of these donors know Christie. He is, geographically speaking, the Republican candidate closest to Wall Street (with apologies to Peter King and George Pataki).

They are uncertain about how Christie’s larger-than-life personality, once a clear asset, will play in the primaries. They are also anxious about the Bridgegate investigation, which has so far been a nothing burger, but uncommitted Republicans are waiting for the other shoe, or subpoena, to drop.

Christie hugged Barack Obama. He hugged Jerry Jones. The voters in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina aren’t hugging him back.

All of this being said, Christie would be wise to stay in the race. Bush has taken away Christie’s status as the safe establishment choice. Walker has taken away the top issue Christie has used to appeal to conservatives — toughness with public sector unions.

But who’s to say that either of them can keep their current momentum going? I’ve already outlined Bush’s weaknesses. Walker is only just now getting the kind of scrutiny a top-tier Republican presidential candidate can expect to receive. It can be even worse than what the unions threw at him in Wisconsin.

There are those who argue that Christie’s money problems are overblown. He doesn’t have a super PAC yet, while Bush already does. The Daily Mail’s Francesca Chambers quoted a Republican strategist as saying, “There’s not a finite amount of money or people in this business.”

There’s also not a lot of loyalty, especially among establishment Republicans. They bet on the candidate who looks strongest. Right now, Christie is lagging because Bush is the strongest looking. But if Bush stumbles, there’s nothing stopping defections to Christie.

Ted Cruz’s supporters will be true believers. Only a small percentage of Bush supporters fit that description.

Remember Tim Pawlenty? I’m sure you don’t. Pawlenty was the two-term Republican governor of Minnesota who tried to run for president in 2012, except he didn’t make it that far.

Pawlenty was one of those candidates who made a great deal of sense on paper: a blue-state evangelical who had dabbled in populist rhetoric, if not policy. He didn’t poll very well, perhaps because people didn’t know who he was and perhaps because he was a lot of Republicans’ second choice.

But Pawlenty looked good enough in theory to attract some donor and GOP professional support. That is, until he lost at the Ames straw poll. The illusion that he was a top-tier candidate ended and he dropped out of the race.

Should Pawlenty have dropped out? He actually finished third in the straw poll. The eventual winner of the caucuses, Rick Santorum, came in fourth. Mitt Romney, who barely lost the caucuses and went on to win the nomination, got just 567 votes in the straw poll.

Michele Bachmann won the straw poll, but finished sixth in the caucuses. The only candidate who did well in both the straw poll and the caucuses was Ron Paul.

Moreover, there was a revolving door of “not Romney” candidates who kept surging to the lead in the early states and national polls only to recede due to mistakes or doubts about their electability: Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain and Santorum.

What if Pawlenty stuck around and waited for his “not Romney” turn? Maybe he would have avoided a campaign-killing error. Maybe he would have been seen as more electable than Santorum.

In 2007, John McCain’s campaign was broke and he was trailing Rudy Giuliani by double digits in the national polls. McCain hung on to win the nomination while Giuliani didn’t win a single primary.

Of course, it’s equally likely that candidates like Pawlenty then and Christie now can only compete as top-tier candidates rather than insurgents. Take away the perception that they’re winners and you take away any reason to vote for them.

But Christie can block traffic on that bridge when he comes to it. In Tim Pawlenty’s case, we’ll never know. Chris Christie can still find out the answer.

W. James Antle III is managing editor of The Daily Caller and author of the book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped? Follow him on Twitter.