Why Chris Christie Didn’t Run in 2012

In the Los Angeles Times, Washington bureau chief David Lauter reviews Lynn Vavreck’s and my book on the election, The Gamble (coming soon!), and Dan Balz’s just-released Collision 2012.  Part of what has gotten attention in Balz’s book is his revelations about attempts to recruit Chris Christie to run.  Here’s how Lauter sets this up his discussion of the Christie recruitment effort:

In explaining the GOP primary campaign, for example, Sides and Vavreck describe the cycle of “discovery, scrutiny and decline” that each of Romney’s rivals endured. They examine the pattern as largely a phenomenon of media coverage: An event such as a debate triggers an upsurge in coverage of a previously little-known candidate. Greater coverage, in turn, leads to a rise in the candidate’s name recognition and standing in polls. Higher standing in the polls triggers more scrutiny, which typically, then, causes the candidate’s fortunes to decline. The strength of their account is to properly focus attention on the media as a player in the process rather than as a detached referee.

An intense focus on the numbers, however, can make the process appear bloodless or mechanistic. Balz’s account fills in a missing element — the unpredictability of individuals, the personal quirks that caused highly touted hopefuls like former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty or Texas Gov. Rick Perry to flame out as candidates.

Indeed, the book’s highlight involves such personal factors: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s detailed, self-serving but also indiscreet account of how Republican notables, including Henry Kissinger, Nancy Reagan and some of the nation’s wealthiest businessmen, tried to woo him into the race.

But we can also explain Chris Christie’s decision not to run using the “bloodless” approach.  Lynn and I talk about Christie and others who did not get into the race in Chapter 3 of the book.  Here’s the key thing.  We know from political science that well-qualified candidates are strategic: they tend to enter races when conditions make it more likely they will win.

Let’s leave aside the question of whether Christie could have won the primary.  His support among party leaders, which Balz helps reveal, suggests that he could have.   What about the general election?   Lynn and I argue that in 2011, when GOP candidates had to decide whether to toss their hat in the ring, the conditions in the country seemed favorable to Obama.  In other words, it made sense for some GOP candidates to wait until 2016, when conditions might be more favorable to Republicans.  We write:

[I]ncumbent presidents are hard to beat. Since 1900, there have been only five elections in which the incumbent ran for reelection and lost versus fourteen where he ran for reelection and won. Moreover, although the economic recovery after the 2008–9 recession had not been rapid, the economy was growing in 2011 when candidates needed to decide whether to run. As of the spring of 2011, when potential candidates probably needed to make a firm decision (if not yet a public one), economic forecasters were predicting growth rates of 2.7% in 2011 and 3.0% in 2012. As we showed in chapter 2, incumbent presidents running amid this level of economic growth are likely to win. There is no reason to think that potential Republican candidates were running their own election forecasting models, but their intuitions and conversations with advisors may have led them to the same conclusion that our model implied: better wait until 2016 (if then). And even if other factors may have seemed favorable to the Republican Party at that point in time—such as the relatively high unemployment rate or Obama’s middling popularity—it may have been a worse bet to challenge Obama under those conditions than to assume he would win and then wait until the end of his second term—at which point, the historical pattern shows, the party controlling the White House often switches.

So, to be clear, we aren’t suggesting that conditions in 2011 meant Obama was a shoo-in, just a strategic candidate might have looked at the landscape in 2011 and said, “You know what, I’ll have a better shot in 2016.”  And we aren’t suggesting that there aren’t idiosyncratic factors at work either.   It’s just to say that Christie’s decision was nicely in line with what political science says.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

John Sides

John Sides is an associate professor of political science at George Washington University.