Governor Christie’s early poll support was soft, based almost exclusively on positive name recognition from a unique event that was widely covered by the media.
Wm. Howard Taft was the fattest president at 312 lbs. Gov. Chris Christie’s size seems to have taken a back seat to the current scandals that have seen his approval ratings plummet nationally. Perhaps to stem the negative tide, he now claims that he will put all 2016 presidential activities on hold for a year. Will these scandals kill his presidential chances? The history of the effect of scandals on the electorate suggests otherwise, but his supposed early advantage over all comers, including Hillary Clinton (a lead that has evaporated, as of this writing) may have been illusory in the first place.
As for scandals, is it possible to have more national and international media attention than Bill Clinton did with Monicagate? Surviving an impeachment effort, his 1996 campaign for re-election was the ultimate test for the scandal hypothesis. Not even Monica Lewinsky with her snapping thong underwear and infamous oral cavity could sink the likable President Bill. Why then has Chris Christie’s poll numbers dropped so sharply?
Early presidential polling has a long history of wild changes as likely voters initial attitudes reflect name recognition more than anything else. Without the kind of opposition and dirty infighting that is likely to emerge once the campaign for president begins for earnest, name recognition trumps most other factors. This is especially true in intra-party polling as respondents have no party identification to hang their hats on. How volatile can this early polling be? Take for example the 1980 presidential campaign.
All through 1979, Senator Ted Kennedy had a significant lead in all polls as disaffection with President Carter led poll respondents to fall back on the name so familiar to them, the heir to what was called the “Kennedy Magic”; a name that had high and largely positive name recognition. At the peak of his polling, yet before he became an announced candidate,` Senator Kennedy led President Carter by nearly two to one. Carter responded with his famous “If Kennedy runs, I’ll whip his ass” statement. In my political button collection I still have one saying just that. Carter was confident that these early polls reflected a Kennedy who was bereft of attack, and the convenient, if fleeting, reminiscence for a “return to Camelot.”
Carter indeed did “whip his ass” with attacks on Kennedy’s penchant for too much alcohol and his personal character. He was further aided by the demonstration, once again, of the power of the Presidency, which resulted in a “rally around the flag” phenomenon in the face of the Iranian Hostage situation and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. At his low, Carter had only a seventeen per cent approval rating, yet by the time of the first primary, the Iowa Caucus, he beat Kennedy fifty nine to thirty one percent, proving that pre-campaigning poll leads , even apparently huge ones,` can be transitory.
Chris Christie’s statesmanlike demeanor during the Hurricane Sandy crisis, even going so far as to praise Democratic President Obama’s actions for New Jersey in the wake of Sandy, hit the right kind of chord to a country disgusted with partisan Washington. The media attention on Governor Christie during this crisis was enormous and the polity knew little else about the Governor of New Jersey. And, certainly with the disaster in New Jersey at hand, no one was going to criticize Christie. Head to head polls emerged which showed him as the only Republican able to beat Hillary Clinton. This, of course, put a bulls-eye on his back. When the current scandals erupted, Democrats jumped on it to attack Christie’s leadership skills, if not his ethics. More conservative Republicans, still miffed at his praise of President Obama during the hurricane crisis, were noticeably silent in coming to his defense.
Later on party identification will serve as a magnet to draw many voters back to their party’s candidate. But note, the number of respondents who claim no party identification is at an almost unheard of high as both parties are held responsible for the petty gridlock that engulfs Washington.
Bottom line, Governor Christie’s early poll support was soft, based almost exclusively on positive name recognition from a unique event that was widely covered by the media. This soft poll support evaporated quickly once the scandal hit, making Christie seem like every other partisan politician. The campaign hasn’t even begun and Christie will have every opportunity to affect his public receptivity, scandal or no scandal, unless it goes quite a bit further. His decision to stop campaigning for one year will give a breather to his opponents for the Republican nomination. This is most significant in the area of fund raising as the pressure to donate funds, relatively early in the campaign, that was so strong given his earlier polls in head-to-head match-ups with Hillary Clinton, should ease. This will likely create a vacuum that will benefit some of his opponents for the Republican nomination. The playing field has not been set yet. And his opposition is by no means limited to the Tea Party type conservatives. One thing is certain, though, Governor Christie can no longer count on high polling numbers based on name recognition alone. As has been seen, this can be a double-edged sword.
Martin, The Pragmatic Liberal-writing on pragmaticliberalism.comMartin, The Pragmatic Liberal-writing on pragmaticliberalism.com