With his announcement Tuesday to a gymnasium full of supporters in the Livingston, New Jersey, high school he once attended, Chris Christie is the 14th Republican to enter the presidential race. Americans, he said Tuesday, are “filled with anxiety” that can be “swept away by strong leadership and decisiveness to lead America again.” But with 3.3 percent support, he is near the bottom of the polls. Worse, he’s hit rock bottom among New Jersey residents, with the lowest approval ratings of his career, battling a still-beating scandal over lane closures on the George Washington Bridge.
But, for all his troubles, Christie isn’t Carly Fiorina or Ben Carson; he’s a sitting governor with mainstream conservative views. That is to say, he’s a viable candidate with legitimate odds for success. And in a world where his direct competitors—Marco Rubio, Scott Walker, John Kasich, and especially Jeb Bush—stumble out of the gate in January 2016, he could win. That world, however, is likely not this one.
Christie’s prospects have changed sharply from three years ago. Then, Christie was the strongest commodity in the Republican Party. Uncompromising and pugnacious, he fought pitched battles against public sector unions before Scott Walker had ever touched the national stage. He killed a stimulus project and won conservative fame for his town hall performances—posted to YouTube—where millions watched his passionate attacks on teachers and other public workers who opposed his benefit cuts and anti-union policies.
By early 2011, top Republican donors were begging Christie to enter the race. They wanted a credible and exciting alternative to the milquetoast Mitt Romney and his lackluster challengers. Christie refused. “You don’t make a decision to run for president of the United States based on impulse. I don’t feel ready in my heart to be president,” he explained in an April interview with Diane Sawyer. “Unless I do, I don’t have any right offering myself to the people of this country. It’s much too big a job. And so you have to first feel in your heart that you’re ready and that you want it more than anything else.”
The question came again in the fall, as Herman Cain rose—and the GOP primary collapsed into farce. Donors, activists, and ordinary voters were desperate for a new candidate, terrified that Barack Obama would win a second term. “I mean this with all my heart,” said one audience member, pleading with Christie to join the race after he gave a speech at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California. “We need you. Your country needs you to run for president.”
“I hear exactly what you’re saying and I feel the passion with which you say it, and it touches me,” Christie replied. “I’m just a kid from Jersey who feels like he’s the luckiest guy in the world to have the opportunity that I have to be the governor of my state.”
We’ll see how Christie’s story ends. But thus far, it illustrates an important rule—perhaps the only real rule—of presidential politics: If you have a shot, you should take it. The United States has an endless supply of people who want to be president; by waiting, you up the odds that one of them will get in your way, or surpass you entirely. The classic example is the popular former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, who sat out of the 1988 presidential race and considered the ’92 one, only to lose his momentum to a younger face.
Even if you stay ascendant or at least relevant, you have to deal with the damage that inevitably comes with tenure in public office. The longer you’re governor, the more chances you have to disappoint your constituents, court a scandal, or just get stuck in the inevitable, everyday grumpiness of governing. A Chris Christie who jumps into the race in 2011 is a Chris Christie who never has to deal with Bridgegate.
The same goes, in fact, for Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who also sat out the 2012 race. No, there wasn’t a groundswell of support for his candidacy, but he was a well-liked governor with the kinds of credentials that lend themselves to a presidential race. He could have done well, or at least laid groundwork for a future run. Instead, like Christie, he’s stepped into a crowded field tarnished by years of uneven governing, with nothing to set him apart from the pack and a host of scandals at his heels.
It’s tempting to treat Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan as an example of this as well, but Ryan took his chance when it came—he joined Mitt Romney’s presidential ticket. After losing, however, he made a retreat back to congressional politics, where he’s thrived.
If you want to know what it looks like when you take the jump and succeed, you need only look as far as the White House. By traditional measures of qualifications, Barack Obama had no business in the 2008 Democratic primary. But, a sitting senator, he had sufficient support from Democratic elites, a powerful public presence, and the skills to raise a lot of money. He had the opportunity, and he took the shot.
It’s this dynamic, incidentally, that makes Florida Sen. Marco Rubio so interesting to watch. He is a man in a hurry, and like Obama, he won’t let his youth and inexperience get in the way of his ambition. If there’s a reason to bet on his bid, it’s that for all of his mistakes, he’s politically fearless in a way his opponents can’t match. And that matters.
Running for president is difficult, grueling, and often thankless work. And for a fresh-faced official like Christie was in 2011 or Rubio is now, it comes with serious risks: If you fail, you won’t just hurt your “brand,” you’ll look vulnerable to opponents and lose valuable political capital, as voters—and even allies—see you as a climber, uninterested in the job voters chose you for. The things you wanted to do as a lawmaker or an executive might go by the wayside.
But that’s a sacrifice you make if you want to be president. In 2011, the party—or at least, some of its most powerful members—wanted Christie. He could have been a contender. He could have won the nomination. He could have been president. Now, he’s fighting from low ground, against strong opponents with wide support in the Republican Party. Plenty of conservatives like Chris Christie, but no one needs him, and that’s why he’ll almost certainly fail.