As numerous commentators have pointed out, Bridgegate hurts Chris Christie because it undermines his key political assets: his tough-guy persona and his reputation for competence. What fewer have noted is what a weakened Christie means for Republican chances in 2016. Yes, it’s early. Yes, lots can change. But right now, Bridgegate doesn’t just look like a disaster for Christie. It looks like a disaster for his entire party, because if Christie can’t mount a strong challenge to Hillary Clinton, it’s unclear anyone can.
The GOP today is an awful brand. A Gallup poll last week found that the percentage of Americans who identify as Republicans just hit a 25-year low. The party is weakest with those demographic groups—minorities and the young—whose shares of the electorate are growing fastest. And it’s unlikely the GOP’s reputation will improve between now and 2016, since that reputation is being driven by a Republican House more responsive to the Tea Party than to public opinion at large.
As a result, it’s crucial that the next Republican presidential nominee possess a personal brand that transcends his or her party’s. If a Republican wins in 2016, it will be because he or she wins over a significant number people who dislike the GOP.
Right now, Christie is the only likely candidate capable of doing that. Last November, Quinnipiac asked Americans their impression of the GOP. By 23 points, it was negative. Then they asked whether potential Republican contenders would make a good president. For the most part, the candidate’s reputations roughly tracked their party’s. By margins of 12, 15, and 27 points, Americans said Paul Ryan, Rand Paul and Ted Cruz would make bad presidents. When Quinnipiac asked about Christie, by contrast, the numbers flipped. By 18 points, Americans thought he’d be a good president—41 points better than margin of his party as a whole.
When you look at specific demographic groups, the numbers are even more striking. More than half of self-described moderates thought Christie would do a good job as president. None of the other three potential Republican candidates garnered more than a quarter. More than one in three African-Americans and one in three self-described liberals thought Christie would do a good job. For his Republican competitors, it was roughly one in 10.
Every single recent poll shows Christie roughly tied with Hillary Clinton and every other potential Republican contender trailing her by close to double digits. That includes Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush, who some pundits suggest could become the establishment/centrist candidate if Christie falters. In a CNN poll last December, Christie led Clinton by two points. Rubio trailed her by 19, Jeb Bush by 21. A McClatchy survey that same month found Clinton leading Christie by three points, Rubio by 10 and Bush by 12.
This shouldn’t be a surprise. Although Rubio initially took a more pro-immigration stance than many in his party, he’s responded to right-wing attacks by repudiating his own bill. Jeb Bush has offered some mild criticisms of his party’s direction, but in the public mind, he’s a Bush and thus shares a political identity with the ex-president who turned so many against the GOP in the first place.
Only Christie has taken the risky, high-profile stances—from embracing Obama during Hurricane Sandy to blasting congressional Republicans for not providing sufficient hurricane relief to supporting in-state tuition for illegal immigrants to denouncing Islamophobia to abandoning a fight against gay marriage—that forge a reputation for genuine independence.
There are other potential Republican contenders who share some of Christie’s strengths. Like Christie, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker can run as a tough, capable manager who isn’t from Washington. Like Christie, Rand Paul has defied his party on key issues—for instance, NSA surveillance—and may have somewhat greater appeal to the young. But of the potential candidates right now, only Christie can run as the bipartisan to Clinton’s partisan, the outsider to her insider, and the plain-speaking everyman to her scripted, poll-tested inauthenticity.
The weaker a political party, the more it requires a candidate of outsized reputation or unusual talent to overcome its deficiencies. That’s what that Republicans had in 1952, when a party still paying for its opposition to the New Deal changed the subject by nominating the general who oversaw D-Day. It’s what Democrats had in 1992, when a party hemorrhaging support among white voters found a governor gifted and ruthless enough to win some of them back. And it’s what the GOP had with Chris Christie, the rare national Republican who seems neither removed from the problems of ordinary Americans nor hostile to the cultural changes transforming the country.
Republicans had better hope Christie can still be that man. Because it’s hard to see who else in their party can.