On Saturday, Chris Christie won a straw poll at the Virginia Tea Party convention. No, it doesn’t mean he’s the front-runner in the GOP presidential primary or even that he is running. But it does remind us of two key considerations in assessing the GOP contest.
First, I am confident that a large number of those Tea Partiers got familiar with Christie from a series of YouTube videos that went viral. Christie cheerily taking on the press. Christie gallantly defending Meg Whitman. Christie bashing public-employee unions. Every week you look for the next in the “series.” It tells us that candidates can be made — or encouraged to run, at least — by select moments that encapsulate that candidate’s persona and beliefs. If the Howard Dean scream video in 2004 helped do him in, what’s to say that Christie or some other candidate can’t jump to the top of the GOP contenders’ list based on a few YouTube videos?
You say that this is a wacky way to select presidents? Well, my first response is yes. And my second is that candidates will still have to prove themselves over the course of a long campaign, but that is why name recognition and a big war chest mean so little at the beginning of a race. YouTube is the great political equalizer.
Moreover, this is yet another reminder that the GOP field is not set. Christie says he’s not interested in a presidential run, but a few more viral videos and straw polls and there will be a “Draft Christie” group. Others may make similar headway and restore or elevate their profile. Rep. Paul Ryan made a splash when most Americans saw him for the first time facing off against the president at the health-care summit. Some more episodes like that and he’ll have his own following, and maybe he’ll reconsider his decision not to make a run in 2012.
The 2012 campaign will be wild and woolly. And we’re going to learn much about candidates we currently know practically nothing about — and they’ll discover just how ambitious they actually are. Prognosticators should be wary: there’s no crystal ball for this race.