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Chris Christie, Against All Odds

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Of the nine Republican presidential candidates I consider viable, I have New Jersey Governor Chris Christie -- who makes his bid official Tuesday -- as dead last.

From the start, he was probably too moderate to have much of a chance at the nomination, and it wasn't clear if Republicans nationwide would ever warm to his New Jersey style. While conservatives might have forgiven him for some of his positions (as they did for Mitt Romney), they wouldn't forget his embrace of Barack Obama after Hurricane Sandy, just before the 2012 election. Then the trouble his staff created in blocking traffic on the George Washington Bridge destroyed his November electability argument by attaching a scandal to his candidacy.

Still, he remains a candidate with conventional qualifications (unlike, say, Carly Fiorina or Ben Carson), and he is in the Republican mainstream on policy (unlike Rand Paul). A sudden surge in public opinion would make a lot of Christie's liabilities look less formidable.

Christie may have a better chance of creating a surge moment than most other long shots in the 2016 race -- Mike Huckabee, Bobby Jindal, Rick Perry, John Kasich and Rick Santorum. I suspect a poll of Republican operatives might find that opinion widespread.

Any candidate in the 2016 cycle can have a polling surge. But only plausible nominees (that is, those who have conventional credentials and mainstream party positions on policy) can take advantage of such a leap. If one of them suddenly moves to the top of the heap early, then party actors might rush to support him or her. (By contrast, if a Ben Carson or a Carly Fiorina gets the same polling rush, the party figures wouldn't jump on board; they might even try to derail such a contender.)

A public-opinion groundswell isn't enough to clinch the nomination (ask Rick Perry, who lost his 2012 momentum in his awful debate performances). But the eventual winner needs to get such a lift at some point in his or her campaign.

We understand how those surges happen. A candidate who attracts national media attention early in the cycle, long before most voters are paying attention, is likely to receive even higher rankings in subsequent polls because voters are likely to think first of candidates whose names they've seen more recently. That showing leads to more media attention, producing even larger poll numbers. (Are those public-opinion surges, and the campaign events that spark them, really that random? I don't think we political scientists have a good handle on the answer yet.)

In Christie's case, even if he moves back up in the polls temporarily, his prospects are dismal, as reflected in his campaign's own spin. His team is trying to make us believe, for example, that Vermont and Massachusetts -- where they believe Christie will do well -- are crucial Republican primaries. With no endorsements from governors to tout, his campaign is reduced to letting Politico know that "he occasionally texts" with Governor Nikki Haley of South Carolina as an example of his (potential?) party support in early primary states.

Still, none of the other viable candidates -- not Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio or Scott Walker or others -- has stepped up over the last six months, so at least Christie hasn't fallen any further behind. For a few more months, that's probably all it takes to make sticking around a reasonable choice.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net