Can Gov. Chris Christie become the new John McCain? That’s the question being asked by a number of journalists and pundits who have been watching Christie’s plan to use New Hampshire to regain his footing in the 2016 presidential race, just as McCain did eight years ago. If you don’t remember, McCain was down in the polls in the summer of 2007, but he staked out New Hampshire and went on to win its primary and eventually the nomination.
But to me, the comparison between Christie and McCain is more out-of-place than bacon on matzo.
The basic problem with the comparison is that McCain was never as far back in the polls as Christie is now in New Hampshire. Christie is in fourth place in the state, polling at 9 percent and trending downward in the Pollster.com aggregate. His favorable rating in the most recent Franklin Pierce University poll was 43 percent, lower than his unfavorable rating of 46 percent. So not only does Christie have to hop over a bunch of other candidates to take the lead, but a plurality of Republicans dislike him. A negative net-favorable rating can be deadly for a candidate as well-known as Christie.
McCain, on the other hand, never dipped below third place or 15 percent in the New Hampshire polling aggregate. Most importantly, he remained well liked even in his darkest hour. In the summer of 2007, McCain’s favorable rating in the Franklin Pierce College poll was 65 percent, against an unfavorable rating of 28 percent. That is, McCain’s favorable rating was 22 percentage points higher than Christie’s is now. McCain always had a base of Republicans who might be willing to support his campaign, even if they weren’t doing so at the time.
Of course, a victory in New Hampshire isn’t worth anything if that’s the only place you’re popular. You need to be able to take a win there and convert it into wins in later primary states. McCain was always in a better position to do that than Christie is.
Christie is polling below 5 percent in the national Pollster.com aggregate. He’s in eighth place, behind people like Ben Carson and Ted Cruz, who have little shot at the nomination. His favorable rating was 40 percent in a Gallup poll last month. (It’s worse in other polls, but I’m using Gallup for an apples-to-apples comparison.)
McCain never dropped below third place in the national Pollster.com aggregate. He bottomed out just below 15 percent (or 10 points higher than Christie). In the Gallup poll in which he earned his worst horse race showing of just 11 percent, he still had a favorable rating of 59 percent. Nationwide, as in New Hampshire, McCain’s favorability rating was about 20 percentage points higher than Christie’s is.
The polling data is indicative of something that should be apparent even without looking at the numbers: McCain was a better positioned candidate. In 2000, McCain had won a primary in New Hampshire against a vaunted George W. Bush machine. He was a war hero and wasn’t too far to the left of his party. Christie is facing a fairly strong Republican field. His main claims to fame are causing a traffic jam and hugging a Democratic president. Christie is also more moderate than McCain was in 2008.
It’s going to be tempting over the next few months to write stories about how Christie is on the comeback trail. Everybody loves a good comeback story. It’s always possible (if unlikely) that Christie could shock us. But his path isn’t John McCain’s.