Could Chris Christie Really Beat Obama in 2012?

The New Jersey governor claims he knows he "could win" the White House in 2012, but he's not "ready to be president." Andrew Romano on why Christie isn't insane—though he shouldn't read much into early polls.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie isn’t known for being demure. Since defeating incumbent Democrat Jon Corzine in 2009, he’s blustered, bellowed, and bullied his way into the hearts of conservatives nationwide, berating every schoolteacher or union boss who has had the temerity to cross him—especially if his staff is filming the encounter for YouTube.

So when National Review’s Rich Lowry asked Christie whether “he knew that, given the moment, there is a serious chance he could win the Republican nomination if he ran,” the governor responded in typically bombastic fashion.

“I see the opportunity,” said the New Jersey governor, who at this point has been pestered about his (allegedly nonexistent) 2012 presidential ambitions so many times that he’s taken to saying he’ll have to commit “suicide” to get reporters off his back. “I have people calling me and saying to me, ‘Let me explain to you how you could win.’ And I’m like, ‘You’re barking up the wrong tree. I already know I could win.’ That’s not the issue.”

An expression of complete electoral confidence from a sworn, Shermanesque non-candidate is a rare thing in American politics. Usually, when a politician is blabbering about how he can win a particular contest, it means he’s planning to give it a go. So does Christie really think he could clobber President Obama in 2012? And if so, is he correct?

Let’s start with the evidence in Christie’s favor. Last month, Zogby Interactive released a poll that showed the governor leading a hypothetical field of Republican hopefuls by a solid 10 percentage points; the silver medalist, Mitt Romney, scored a paltry 17 percent to Christie’s commanding 27 percent. Even more impressive, Christie was the only Republican who bested Obama among all respondents (43 percent to 40 percent), with much of his strength coming from independents, who preferred the New Jerseyan by a wide, 13-point margin (42 percent to 29 percent).

Christie is smart enough and savvy enough to know that his chances of defeating Obama are slimmer than he’s letting on.

When “people” call Christie and try to “explain to [him] how [he] could win,” the Zogby poll is probably the proof they’re citing. According to them, the Republican field is split into three groups: establishment picks with fatal flaws (Mitt Romney, Haley Barbour); conservative darlings without crossover appeal (Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee); and bland ciphers who lack that the governor’s political potency (Tim Pawlenty, the ex-candidate John Thune). Only Christie can square the circle, or so they say.

The problem, however, is that this argument ignores how Republicans choose their nominees—and how the broader electorate chooses a president. First, it is much too early to be taking primary polls seriously. Consider another Zogby sounding, this one from Feb. 26, 2007. In that poll, the eventual GOP nominee, John McCain, finished second with 20 percent support. Mitt Romney, who would soon become a formidable contender, garnered a measly 9 percent. The top scorer was Rudy Giuliani (29 percent), who wound up losing every primary he entered. And Mike Huckabee, that year’s runner-up, didn’t even crack 0.5 percent.

Right now, polls are meaningless. No matter what primary voters tell pollsters, they don’t have the faintest idea whether they will be willing to vote for a given candidate, especially an unfamiliar one like Huckabee in 2008 or Christie in 2012, until they have a chance to size him up in the harsh light of a bonafide campaign.

To get a sense of what familiarity might breed in Christie's case, take a look at the latest Public Policy Polling (PPP) survey of New Jerseyans. Conducted from Jan. 6 to Jan. 9, the poll shows the governor with a respectable, if not particularly hearty, approval rating of 48 percent. But in a hypothetical head-to-head match-up with Obama, Christie loses by 17 percentage points, 38 percent to 55 percent. And these are the voters who know him best.

Skeptics might note that New Jerseyans tend to vote Democratic in presidential elections, and they’d be right; the state hasn’t sided with the GOP since 1988. But there’s also reason to believe that Republicans—especially ultraconservative Republican primary voters in key states such as Iowa, South Carolina, Florida, and Nevada—could sour on Christie over the course of a nominating contest. Right now, he’s that straight-shooting, truth-telling, union-busting character from the YouTube videos. Over time, however, he would become, thanks to his Republican rivals, the candidate who accepts Roe v. Wade, who supports New Jersey’s strict gun-control laws, who isn’t particularly tough on illegal immigration, who favored the ground zero mosque, and who endorsed a few RINOs in 2010. It isn’t hard to imagine Christie’s 27 percent support shriveling up some, much like Giuliani’s in 2008.

When you factor in the forces conspiring to give Obama an advantage over any Republican challenger—a huge field operation; a seasoned team; the power of the incumbency; an improving economy; and his recent proposal to let states opt out of Obamacare early, which neutralizes one of the GOP’s punchiest attacks—Christie simply doesn’t look like the shoo-in he’s claiming to be.

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That doesn’t mean Christie couldn’t win a presidential contest. He’s a smart guy, and very, very savvy politician. As I’ve written before, Obama has a lot to learn from the Garden Stater about recession-era leadership. Reaching the top of the Republican heap after such a short time in office is no small feat. But my guess is that Christie is smart enough and savvy enough to know that his chances of defeating Obama are slimmer than he’s letting on, and that launching (and losing) a presidential bid this soon after becoming governor would undermine his support in New Jersey, which would in turn undermine his political future.

That future is key. After telling National Review’s Lowry, “I already know I could win,” Christie went on to explain why he’s refusing to throw his hat in the ring. “I see the opportunity,” he said. “But I’ve got to believe I’m ready to be president, and I don’t.” Christie’s strength in the GOP primary polls suggests there’s an opening this year for an unfamiliar, inspiring kind of Republican candidate such as Christie, Bobby Jindal, or even Mitch Daniels—much like Obama’s opening in 2008, when a flawed, front-running establishment favorite (Hillary Clinton) had offended the base on a core issue (Iraq). The difference is that Obama didn’t have to run against a popular, powerful incumbent. Christie and Co. would.

So while we should believe the governor when he says he’s not ready, we should also remember that unreadiness is, by definition, a temporary affliction, remedied by time. Christie’s comments weren’t meant for this cycle; they were meant for the next one. In 2016, he will be approaching the end of his second term. Obama will be on his way out. Joe Biden will be too old to succeed him. And the Republican Party will be even more desperate for new blood than it is now.

Check back in. Chances are Christie will feel a little readier then.

Andrew Romano is a Senior Writer for Newsweek. He reports on politics, culture, and food for the print and web editions of the magazine and appears frequently on CNN and MSNBC. His 2008 campaign blog, Stumper, won MINOnline's Best Consumer Blog award and was cited as one of the cycle's best news blogs by both Editor & Publisher and the Deadline Club of New York. Follow Andrew on Twitter.