Chris Christie's Defining Mistake: Winning in a Landslide

For an ambitious, surging politician, Chris Christie's desire to run for a second term as Governor, and to win in a landslide, would have been irresistible -- but in retrospect it may have been a defining mistake. He would be positioning himself far more viably as a presidential hopeful now if he had taken the counter-intuitive, but ultimately more shrewd decision to step down after a single, successful term.

New Jersey elections for Governor are on odd years. Christie's re-election was in November of 2013. If he hadn't run, the timing would have been perfect: a two-year intermission between standing down, in January of 2014, and the general election of 2016, a period not long enough out of circulation to be thought of as losing relevance, especially relative to Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush; yet a period long enough for him to have occupied a political medium of bi-partisan goodwill, not on the same scale, but still evocative of Rudy Giuliani in the mid 2000s after he stepped down as mayor at the end of 2001 having shown strong and competent leadership during a massive crisis, and transcending partisanship as a tough moderate from a blue state.

Christie's single term would have encapsulated everything he needed: a first half boldly and brazenly conservative, to the extent he was contemplated as a possible Republican Vice-presidential nominee in 2012; and a second half defined by transcendent bi-partisanship, visibly summed up by a fulsome welcome of the president in the aftermath of Super Storm Sandy. In retrospect, he had all the necessary credentials and the compelling story he needed by the end of a single term, burnished further by a brash, no-nonsense career as a prosecutor. Given this context, in terms of risk vs reward, a second term was undoubtedly inviting, but not strictly necessary. It may well turn out to be his undoing.

Straightaway, when he chose to run for re-election, there were problems: he was criticized for spending an additional $12-25 million of state money to hold a special election for the Senate three weeks earlier, instead of simply holding the special election on the general election day, when popular mayor Cory Booker might have attracted more votes for Barbara Buono, his opponent in the Governor's race.

The Fort Lee lane closures occurred before the 2013 election; but they were motivated by it: as retribution against Fort Lee's Mayor for not endorsing Christie in the Governor's race. Media outlets began reporting on the incriminating exchanges, between Christie's aides, in January of 2014, just days after his inauguration for a second term. The issue has lingered: In May of this year, a Monmouth University poll found that 50 percent of New Jersey's adults believed Chris Christie was personally involved in the scandal. According to a recent Business Insider poll of polls, Christie's net favorability peaked in January 2013 - the moment he would have stepped down had he chosen not to run. 51% of Americans had a favorable opinion, and just 23% had an unfavorable opinion at that time.

During Hurricane Sandy, he projected strong leadership, and by the time of the re-election, he was able to argue that his administration had managed the recovery and overseen much of the relief effort. Not long after his re-election, however, allegations were already starting to emerge that much of the federal house aid money allocated to Hurricane Sandy victims were going to areas of New Jersey that weren't particularly impacted by the storm. By March of this year, pockets of hecklers from New Jersey were starting to dog Christie on the trail in Iowa. Had he not stood for re-election, he would not be having to answer for a year and a half of impatience and disaffection.

In November of 2014 he vetoed a bill that would have banned the use of gestation crates in New Jersey. It passed both houses easily, and 9 out of 10 New Jersey voters wanted Christie to sign it. The implication was that Christie wanted to be seen as supporting the status quo on agriculture in Iowa, where the hog industry is worth $7 billion. Had he stepped down as Governor a year earlier, he would not have had to give the impression he was putting his national ambitions before his constituents.

Then there was the settlement, in March this year, with Exxon. The state Senate passed a resolution condemning the deal, which settled Exxon's liability for pollution at two refinery sites for $225 million. The figure caused an uproar because the state's lawyers had been seeking as much as $8.9 billion at trial. If Christie had left this to a successor, he would not have taken flak for it.

Christie had already endured several credit downgrades under his watch. Nearly a year after his re-election, however, things got far worse, with a cumulative effect that has impacted severely on his image of competence. New Jersey was downgraded by Fitch, then a month later by Standard and Poor's, then again, in April this year, by Moody's. If he hadn't run for re-election, his fiscal reputation - a key factor in a presidential run - would not be severely compromised.

His high polling numbers from early 2013, the moment he would have stepped down from office had he not run for re-election, have since flipped upside-down, with polling this month showing him 27% favorable and 55% unfavorable. A Fairleigh-Dickinson Public Mind poll released last month had him with an approval rating of 30%.

In terms of his presidential ambitions, Christie has gained almost nothing from his second term. Rather, it has left him compromised, it has lowered his stocks, and forced him into a difficult and often unsuccessful balancing act, trying to make an impression in Iowa and New Hampshire, without giving his constituents the impression his attention is divided. Had he not run, he could be dictating the degree of public exposure, working full time on donors and organization, be relatively scandal free, and be positioning himself as a nominee with the vigor and effectiveness of Kasich or Walker, but with the national profile and mainstream appeal of Bush. Instead, he is languishing, both as a Governor, and in early Republican presidential polling.