RINDGE, N.H. — We caught a glimpse of Chris Christie at Bruchetti’s Pizzeria in Sandown, New Hampshire, yesterday, where the New Jersey governor shook hands and swapped stories with locals and tourists during a brief visit. (Christie didn’t get a slice of pizza. We did.1) If you didn’t know any better, you might have assumed that Christie was in his element and near the top of the field in New Hampshire. He’s a more natural retail politician than some of the others in the Republican field, and he’s from the Northeast, which can sometimes be an advantage. Christie’s moderate conservatism also isn’t a bad fit for New Hampshire, although he’s more of a “big government conservative” than someone in “Live Free or Die” mode.
Instead, Christie is mired in sixth place in the Republican race in New Hampshire, at just 5.3 percent in our latest polling average here. That’s a big decline, with Christie having lost half his support over the past month. He was at 10.9 percent in the New Hampshire polling average on Jan. 1.
What happened? Christie was squeezed in a vice between the other “establishment” candidates on one side, and Donald Trump on the other.
It’s one thing to adopt Christie’s strategy of downplaying Iowa in the hopes of being buoyed by a stronger finish in New Hampshire. That strategy has had a fairly low success rate, but there are important exceptions, such as John McCain in 2008. But it’s another thing when at least2 two other Republicans, including Jeb Bush and John Kasich, are taking almost exactly the same approach. There are a lot of center-right votes to go around in New Hampshire, but not so many that they’re an impressive plunder when split three or four ways.
Marco Rubio has also hurt Christie. A poor finish for Rubio in Iowa might have created an opportunity for a new “great establishment hope” in New Hampshire. Instead, Rubio has gained ground in New Hampshire after beating his polls to finish with 23 percent of the vote in Iowa.
But for Christie, whose yard signs boast of a candidate “telling it like it is,” the biggest problem of all might be Trump. Trump has usurped the Christie brand of being the unrepentantly loudmouthed3 alpha male who will tell you the truths that other candidates avoid.
Christie has repeatedly declined to pointedly criticize Trump, including in November after Trump falsely claimed that news reports showed “thousands and thousands” of Muslims cheering in New Jersey after the Sept. 11 terror attacks. In debates, Christie has been more focused on attacking Rubio.
This may be because Christie and Trump have long been friends. Trump, of course, has been a longstanding fixture in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and the Trump Taj Mahal casino is still in business there, although its future is uncertain. Or it may because Christie was being tactical and thought having Trump at the top of the pack in Iowa would leave more room for a moderate Republican to emerge out of New Hampshire.
But whatever the rationale, Christie’s strategy doesn’t seemed to have worked. The recent endorsement of Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker and a strong debate tonight could help Christie, but leapfrogging so many other Republicans may be too much of a feat even in a state famous for its last-minute changes of mind.