Comment: Christie can’t win; but he could block Trump’s path

If he wants to take down Trump, he should consider the successes and failures or other ‘protest’ candidates.

By Jonathan Bernstein / Bloomberg Opinion

Former New Jersey governor Chris Christie was set to announce his presidential candidacy on Tuesday. While Christie has conventional credentials, his chances of winning are slim to none. Among other things, he’s polling between 1 percent and zero. He found no support in 2016, and it’s hard to see what he’s done since to change that outcome.

That doesn’t mean Christie’s campaign has to be a useless exercise in vanity. He’s already talked quite a bit about taking on former president Donald Trump, who enjoys a double-digit lead over all potential Republican rivals. Instead of running what is likely to be a futile race for the GOP nomination, Christie could dedicate his campaign to taking down Trump.

There’s a healthy history of candidates jumping into the presidential nomination contest not to win, but to advance some policy or set of ideas. Examples include Sen. Gene McCarthy’s entry into the 1968 Democratic primary race to fight the Vietnam War, Jesse Jackson’s 1984 “Rainbow Coalition” effort to elevate Black and other previously excluded Democrats, and Pat Robertson’s 1988 run, designed to force the Republican Party to pay attention to Christian conservatives and their policy priorities.

Indeed, we’re probably all better off thinking about the presidential nomination process as less about individual candidates and more as the way in which political parties define themselves.

Here are some lessons from previous protest campaigns that Christie might want to keep in mind if he decides to try this strategy:

Stick to the plan: You’re there to promote a cause, so take every opportunity to show how important your mission is. Democratic Washington Gov. Jay Inslee ran as the climate candidate in 2020, but he failed to follow through. When Inslee was asked about climate change, he had strong answers prepared. But when he was asked about immigration, Inslee gave standard liberal answers instead of arguing that immigration (or health care, or the economy, or foreign policy) was really a climate issue and couldn’t be fixed until global warming was addressed. Christie has to avoid similar responses. Whatever question he’s asked, Christie needs to turn it into a reason Republicans can’t trust Trump.

But adjust to context: In 1992, Republican Pat Buchanan challenged incumbent George H.W. Bush with his “America First” campaign to push the party toward his brand of xenophobic conservatism. But when a recession hit and Bush’s popularity slumped, Buchanan found ways to expand his message to economics as well. The danger of being a one-issue candidate is that after a while people stop listening. The trick to keeping it interesting is to make connections between current events and the original theme. For Christie, that means finding ways to keep tying Trump’s numerous flaws to the policy questions Republicans care about.

It’s not about you: The main thing to keep in mind for candidates like Christie is that you’re running for a purpose and that purpose isn’t necessarily to win the nomination. If your personality and skills can help sell your cause, then by all means use them. But the cause is more important than the persona. That’s tripped up candidates such as former Democratic congressman Dennis Kucinich, who ran as an antiwar candidate in 2004, and an extremely liberal candidate in 2008, but wound up just seeming like a crank. Perhaps the most successful use of personality to advance a cause was how Sen. Bernie Sanders used the ways in which he wasn’t a standard-issue politician — his age, Jewishness and rumpled-ness — to make his brand of socialism seem cute and cuddly to many in 2016. Christie might want to study how Sanders used traits that made him seem unpresidential to make his message resonate.

Target: Traditional candidates for president need to think about finishing in the top group in Iowa and New Hampshire, and then expanding their coalition as the primary calendar moves on. Candidates like Christie, who essentially would be running solely to keep Trump from winning, don’t need to do that. They need to find ways to be recognized as real candidates, something that Christie’s conventional qualifications help him establish. And they have to figure out who they’re trying to persuade. Party activists? The party’s voters? All citizens? The undecided? The media? Inslee’s campaign might have chosen to try to persuade the media and all voters of the general importance of climate policy; or he could have focused on Democrats active in party politics; all of whom already agreed on the basic issue. He then could have focused on trying to convince them to make the climate a higher priority than other policy areas. Different goals, different campaigns.

I’m not sure how open Republicans will be to Christie’s message. But I’m reasonably confident that it’s his only realistic way to be a productive part of the nomination contest. And who knows, in 2004, Howard Dean came at least somewhat close to turning a protest campaign against the Iraq War into a realistic shot at the nomination; although it quickly fizzled. Anyway, the way to measure the effectiveness of these campaigns is by how well they advance their candidate’s cause, not by horse race polls in nomination politics.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. A former professor of political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University, he wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

Talk to us

More in Opinion

Editorial cartoons for Tuesday, Sept. 26

A sketchy look at the news of the day.… Continue reading

Sen. June Robinson, D-Everett, left, and Sen. Mark Mullet, D-Issaquah, right, embrace after a special session to figure out how much to punish drug possession on Tuesday, May 16, 2023, in Olympia, Wash. Without action, Washington's drug possession law will expire July 1, leaving no penalty in state law and leaving cities free to adopt a hodgepodge of local ordinances.  (Karen Ducey/The Seattle Times via AP)
Editorial: Robinson smart choice to head Senate budget panel

A 10-year legislative veteran, the Everett senator displays a mastery of legislation and negotiation.

Randall Tharp’s month recovery coins after battling a fentanyl addiction.  (Kevin Clark / The Herald)
Fentanyl crisis should force rethinking of approach

A continuum of care, that includes treatment in jails, is imperative, says a journalist and author.

School buses need seat belts and limits on capacity

My name is Grace Davis and I am a seventh-grade middle schooler… Continue reading

Congress must reauthorize funding act for Alzheimer’s research

With more than 6 million Americans living with Alzheimer’s disease, including 120,000… Continue reading

Comment: Democrats have nothing to gain by backing Menendez

Unlike the loss of Al Franken, encouraging the New Jersey senator to go doesn’t cost the Democrats much.

Comment: Amid union victories, labor still faces big challenges

Federal regulations, such as the Taft-Hartley Act, have long stymied labor’s efforts to gain members.

Comment: Desantis’ $2 gas pledge should terrify Texas

He can’t get there unless oil is trading below $55 a barrel; nobdy wants to revisit those days.

Flowers bloom on the end of a dead tree on Spencer Island on Monday, Aug. 28, 2023 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Editorial: Restore salmon habitat but provide view of its work

Comments are sought on a plan to restore fish habitat to the island east of Everett with popular trails.

Most Read