Chris Christie Does Not Have a Likability Problem

He'll face a number of challenges if he seeks the Republican presidential nomination, but appealing to voters as a person won't be one of them.
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Eduardo Munoz/Reuters

Chris Christie's landslide reelection victory Tuesday in New Jersey has prompted a new round of articles arguing he's temperamentally and politically unsuited to being president, a pugnacious Northeasterner who won't connect out on the hustings in real 'Murica if he makes a bid in 2016.

But Chris Christie is no Rudy Giuliani, the last man of his type to run for president and one to whom he is sometimes compared. He is not going to go the Iowa State Fair in old man shoes and stand around near hay bales looking lost, as I watched the former mayor do in 2007. He is not going to sit in a diner in Madison County and not talk to voters, or to decline to taste the local loose-meat dish at Ross' in Bettendorf. He will figure out the difference between field corn and sweet corn before he has to talk to anyone about it. He is not going to write off Iowa and New Hampshire and South Carolina and Nevada try to start his campaign with a win in Florida, an insane and fateful strategy pursued by the former New York mayor during his 2008 bid for the GOP nomination.

On the most basic test of likability—is Christie a guy it would be a blast to have a beer with?—it seems impossible to answer no. People at the State Fair will enjoy his presence, because Christie is a politician who knows how to enjoy the quintessence of local commercial goofiness, which is much of what the State Fair is. Give that man spatula and set him to flipping pork chops: Anyone who can charmingly answer the phone at Hot Dog Johnny's can do retail politics in primary states. Giuliani was much more of a sourpuss.

No, Chris Christie is no Rudy Giuliani. The New York mayor's office is a political dead end, but being an establishment Republican leader and popular governor with a national profile is not: Mitt Romney, a former Northeastern governor from an even more liberal state than New Jersey, won the Republican nomination in 2012, despite being a Mormon and having overseen the health-care overhaul on which Democrats modeled Obamacare. John McCain won the Republican nomination in 2008 despite having been an immigration leader, not a popular thing in Iowa. Electability is an argument voters listen to, even Republican ones. It helped Romney defeat his many opponents in 2012, just as it helped John Kerry defeat Howard Dean in 2004.

Christie has a quality rarely found in politics: Instead of sounding like a generic politician, he sounds like himself. "Authenticity" is not something that can be scripted, though sometimes consultants find it worthwhile to sand it down a bit around the edges. There's no question that Christie can appeal to Democrats in a general election in a relatively middle-of-the-road state. In New Jersey, the same voters who overwhelmingly elected him to a second term also raised the minimum wage in their state on Tuesday. And he proved he can also woo Latinos and women, winning the majority of them in New Jersey Tuesday. According to Gallup polling in June, Christie is the potential Republican presidential contender looked on most favorably by Democrats.

As for Christie's tiffs with teachers, great educators do amazing work. But anyone, parent or child, who's ever had to face a teacher who should have been canned years ago but wasn't because of a union will have some sympathy for the governor. Unfortunately for their members, the public-sector unions are also not the powerhouses they once were. And private-sector ones can barely even lift their favored candidates to victory in Democratic primaries. (Just ask Dick Gephardt, the union favorite who came in fourth in Iowa in 2004.) Nothing about unions is going to matter in a GOP primary contest, anyway.

The one thing that could trip Christie up: the as-yet-unexplored vetting issues that reportedly caused Romney to not pick Christie as his running-mate in 2012. How they shake out will depend not only on how serious the issues are but also how good a politician Christie is. Marco Rubio overcame an astonishing array of seemingly insurmountable baggage to become a senator. Bill Clinton survived his bimbo problem as both a candidate and as president. And Barack Obama turned his pastor problem into a speech that made the Democratic electorate admire him more, not less. Vetting problems are only as big an issue as a politician's skills allow them to be. The jury is out on this when it comes to Christie.

“The verdict from last night, at least in New Jersey, is that people like who I am and like how I govern,” Christie said Wednesday. I'm going to fact check that one as: TRUE.

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Garance Franke-Ruta is a former senior editor covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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