Chris Christie said he wasn’t going home.
It was Sunday afternoon in Exeter, New Hampshire, outside Shooter’s Pub, where people were drinking before the Super Bowl. Christie was standing in front of a microphone and a few dozen members of the press, trying his best to keep the focus on the previous night’s Republican debate, where he had pilloried Marco Rubio to great affect, and off of his own grim outlook in the state’s primary.
Earlier, at a town hall, he’d said, “There’s no silver medals in this business. If you lose, you go home, and when you go home, the country is left to Hillary Rodham Clinton.”
But he was talking about Rubio when he said that, not himself. When he was asked by a reporter, outside the bar, if he would go home if he lost on Tuesday, he was cagey.
“It depends on how you define lose, man, you know?” he said. He added that he didn’t personally have a definition for the term. A volunteer nearby held a sign with his campaign slogan, “Telling It Like It Is.”
“So, I am ready to roll right into South Carolina,” Christie said, “my reservations are made. We have staff down there and we’re ready to go to South Carolina.”
I asked him if there was any circumstance in which he could see himself canceling those reservations. He answered me with his signature sarcasm, a look of total dismissiveness in his eyes.
“Any circumstance?” he said. “I mean, I guess you could imagine a circumstance. I can’t think of one at the moment. I’m not worried about that. South Carolina is way ahead out the windshield. I’ve got another sixty hours or so in New Hampshire that I’ve got to focus on really strongly, and that’s what I’m going to focus on.”
A few hours later, on Monday morning, his campaign sent out his schedule for Wednesday and Thursday, which wasn’t so far out the windshield after all. He had three stops planned in the Palmetto State: the College of Charleston, Blackstone’s Cafe in Beaufort, and Stack’s Pancake House on Hilton Head Island. The campaign later added a fourth stop, at Sticky Fingers BBQ in Mount Pleasant.
But by 1:05 a.m. on Wednesday, the plans were cancelled. The campaign revised the schedule to say, “Today, Governor Christie will travel to New Jersey. We will advise of any further scheduling changes.”
Christie had figured out the definition of losing—7.4% in the primary here—and he was going home.
In a statement confirming the suspension of his campaign, Christie said, his “message was heard by and stood for by a lot of people, but just not enough and that’s ok.”
In politics, he said, “you never know what will happen.”
“And so today,” he said, “I leave the race without an ounce of regret. I’m so proud of the campaign we ran, the people that ran it with me and all those who gave us their support and confidence along the way.”
He had worked harder to court the people of New Hampshire than any other candidate. Sunday was his 71st day of campaigning in the state. And in the end, he had nothing to show for it. He came in sixth place, behind Donald Trump, John Kasich, Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio. He won zero delegates. Only Carly Fiorina and Ben Carson, who didn’t even bother to stay in the state to see his results, fared worse.
It’s difficult to remember it now, but there was a time when Christie, not Trump, was the loudmouth Republican from the Northeast who made headlines with every word that he uttered.
After a rocky start in local politics in the 1990s, he was appointed the United States Attorney from New Jersey by George W. Bush, for whom he had prolifically fundraised. He spent seven years in the office and, during that time, he built a reputation for busting up political corruption in a state famous for its grifters and crooks. He also developed a knack for inviting media attention. In 2009, based on his experience as the state’s top prosecutor, he was elected governor, beating Jon Corzine, a friend of President Obama’s, handily.
Christie quickly became a favorite on the cable news and talk show circuits. He was a fixture on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” and, as his star rose, on late night. David Letterman loved to poke fun at his considerable heft (Christie once appeared on his show, eating a donut). He was covered extensively by the papers in neighboring New York as well as by publications based in Washington, like Politico. He became known for moments—usually of biting sarcasm at the expense of others—that his office publicized on YouTube.
By 2012, Republicans were begging Christie to run for President. Ann Coulter embarked on a campaign to convince the country that if Mitt Romney was the nominee instead of Christie, it would be fatal to the party. A group of influential Iowan conservatives flew to Drumthwacket, the governor’s mansion, to try to convince him. He eventually demurred, and then he chose not to be Romney’s running mate.
That proved politically stupid.
Historically, the longer you remain in Jersey politics, the greater your chance of becoming embroiled in a scandal. Christie’s story was no different.
In 2013, one of his lackeys ordered the closure of access lanes to the George Washington Bridge as an act of political retribution against a small-town mayor. The tabloid nightmare that ensued for Christie was dubbed “Bridgegate,” and although it didn’t knock him out completely, his political career has never been the same.
So Christie was already damaged—permanently—when he decided to run for president in 2016. He announced his candidacy in his high school gymnasium in Livingston, in front of his high school buddies. It felt, frankly, like he was running for dogcatcher.
But it seemed at least possible that he could overcome the bad press of the previous two years and reignite interest in his political career. He was just too charismatic and too gifted a retail politician to write off completely.
But those gifts didn’t prepare him to contend with an oversized Republican field that included Trump.
And it didn’t help that Christie chose not to cast himself as the no-nonsense moderate in the race, like John Kasich did, but instead chose the role of another right-winger. He tried, unconvincingly, to rewrite his record—claiming, among other things, that he didn’t get into politics because supported a ban on assault weapons (he did) and he didn’t donate to Planned Parenthood (he did that, too).
Worse for Christie was the fact that he and Trump are a lot alike, at least in their demeanor. They are both mean and funny in the same New York way (Christie was born in Newark, which is close enough). But Trump takes it all a few hundred yards further. He will go where Christie won’t, and he was rewarded for it while Christie was largely forgotten.
For Christie to have upstaged Trump or to have seemed more conservative than him or Cruz, he would have literally had to call, on the debate stage, for genocide on American soil.
Thinking of it in those terms, he never really had a shot.