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Christie, Clinton and the Calendar

I’m sympathetic to the media’s obsession with Gov. Chris Christie’s possible-but-unlikely entry into the Republican nomination race in one sense: he is one of the most natural communicators since Bill Clinton. (Also, it’s a slow news week.) He has superstar talent, something that some of the other Republican candidates have lacked, and it’s the kind that could appeal to both primary and general election voters.

Mr. Christie is being compared to Mr. Clinton for another reason, however — and this one doesn’t hold up as well to scrutiny.

Mr. Clinton did not officially declare his candidacy until Oct. 4, 1991. And he did perfectly fine. It’s now late September, so doesn’t Mr. Christie still have time?

Who knows — but Mr. Clinton’s example doesn’t count in Mr. Christie’s favor. When Mr. Clinton was running for the nomination, the candidates (and media) were ignoring the Iowa caucuses because of the presence of a favorite-son candidate, Senator Tom Harkin. And the New Hampshire primary didn’t take place until Feb. 20. So Mr. Clinton officially declared his candidacy 139 days before the first meaningful nomination contest.

It had looked like this year’s primaries and caucuses might also get off to a relatively late start — but that appears less likely now after the news that Florida may schedule its primary as early as Jan. 31. If, as in 2008, New Hampshire is determined to hold its primary three weeks ahead of Florida — with Nevada and South Carolina sandwiched in between — that would push its primary up to Jan. 10.

Even if Mr. Christie were to declare his candidacy today, and even if he were to ignore Iowa, that would give him just 104 days to prepare — a month less than Mr. Clinton.

But even that comparison is too favorable. Mr. Clinton may not have officially declared his candidacy until October — but he had formed an exploratory committee on Aug. 16. That was a full 188 days — six months — before New Hampshire, about twice as much time as Mr. Christie would have. And Mr. Clinton was making noises about running — and doing some of the work required for a run — long before that.

And the 1991-92 cycle was an outlier in some other ways. In early 1991, it had seemed (wrongly of course) that the first President George Bush was a shoo-in for re-election, and that should anything have gone awry with his presidency, Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York would be the one to challenge him.

Such was the lack of interest in the race that there were only three polls conducted of Democratic voters in the first half of 1991. Through Sept. 30, 1991, the Democratic candidates had raised only $2.8 million dollars among them. There had been virtually no endorsements.

Every primary campaign operates at a different tempo, and this year’s has been slower than 2000 or 2008. But the pace of the 1992 campaign was so uniquely sluggish that forming an exploratory committee in August and officially declaring one’s candidacy in October was pretty much right on schedule — provided that some preparatory work had been beforehand.

You can also attempt a comparison to Ronald Reagan, who didn’t officially announce his candidacy until Nov. 13, 1979. But as with Mr. Clinton, when a candidate officially announces is not equivalent to when he is running for president in everything but name only.

Everybody knew that Mr. Reagan was going to run — he had been included in every poll of Republican voters in 1979 — including Mr. Reagan, whose de facto campaign launch was in March of that year. And Mr. Reagan, unlike Mr. Christie, had run for president twice before, in 1968 and 1976.

Maybe Mr. Christie has enough talent to overcome a late start, but there would be no good precedent for it; the cases of Mr. Clinton and Mr. Reagan are not even close.

True, precedent is not everything. We haven’t been picking presidents in quite this way for very long, so a precedent is broken in almost every cycle.

But even if a late start is not disqualifying, it will tilt the odds against Mr. Christie in all sorts of tangible and intangible ways — enough to more than outweigh the fact some Republicans seem to be clamoring for him now. (And in fact, polls find that rank-and-file voters are significantly more satisfied with their choices than they were a few months ago.) The risk-reward calculus for Mr. Christie has gotten worse with every day of feigned or actual indecision. One who has a high opinion of his intellect and his political skills, as I do, might infer that if he were really interested in running for president, he would have made up his mind sooner.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.