Commentary Magazine


Chris Christie: The Pop Culture Candidate?

The election of 2016 is still a long way off, but that hasn’t stopped pundits and prognosticators (like us) from endlessly debating who may be running in our next presidential election. While Democrats have few reasonable contenders outside of Hillary Clinton, Republicans have had the opposite problem–there’s at least a dozen possible names currently floating around. From congressmen like Paul Ryan to Senators like Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Rand Paul to popular governors like Scott Walker and Chris Christie, the Republican bench is deep and varied. A great deal of vitriol has been written about the latter recently by conservatives, highlighting just how far out of favor the once beloved New Jersey governor has fallen in the eyes of grassroots activists and journalists. That hasn’t caused Christie to shy away from the spotlight, and it may have even been his plan all along to end up in conservatives’ doghouse all along.

There’s a number of contenders vying for the hearts and minds of the conservative grassroots: Rand Paul, who became a darling after his filibuster; Scott Walker, who has publicly, and successfully, taken on public sector unions in his state; and the current darling, I would argue, Ted Cruz, whose “Cruz to Victory” fundraising campaign soared to the top of Twitter’s “trending topics” at the height of its popularity. It’s not easy to make a fundraiser a trending topic, but the enthusiasm of his supporters made the push seem more like a pep rally than a request for donations.

The love and attention of die-hard Tea Partiers is difficult to attain, and often turns from gold to water at any real or perceived misstep. The career trajectory of Mitt Romney is an example of this phenomenon: in the 2008 primaries against John McCain, Romney was cheered as the conservative alternative, garnering a surprisingly enthusiastic (at least in retrospect) reception at CPAC that year. Just four years later in 2012, Romney was viewed as the “establishment” candidate; when Paul Ryan came on board, many in the conservative grassroots found themselves eager to throw their support behind the ticket for the first time. Fast forward to today, Paul Ryan himself is the latest conservative to find himself in the grassroots’ doghouse, with Heritage Action, a leader in the conservative movement, taking aim at the congressman for his support of immigration reform. 

With these colleagues in mind, it seems as though Chris Christie has decided to take a markedly different road on his quest for the 2016 Republican nomination. If he can’t maintain the support and enthusiasm of conservatives (which it seems he’s totally given up on), Christie may have formulated a strategy to form moderate and low-information voters as his base. As a moderate Republican governing a state as deep blue as New Jersey, it’s an interesting path, and it is perhaps the only way to maintain both his seat as governor and his boost chances as a presidential contender.

Many of our readers are likely not avid consumers of popular culture; I admit my own pop culture knowledge and familiarity is lacking to say the least. I’ve observed an interesting phenomenon taking place over the last several months, since Christie shot to mainstream national fame with his response to Hurricane Sandy and his numerous photo-ops with President Obama at the time and since. Many friends and family who have no interest whatsoever in politics have sent me stories they come upon on Chris Christie they find in their daily Internet trawls, often humorous and always on sites I wouldn’t normally visit myself (TMZ, People magazine and other celebrity news homepages). Trying to forge a common ground, they often say “Hey, this is related to your job and kind of funny, this Christie guy is a piece of work!” Since the Hurricane Sandy photo-op I’ve heard much less about Christie from conservatives who once eagerly sent around his YouTube videos shouting down hecklers at town hall events, and I’ve been hearing quite a bit more about him from folks who were the sort that had to be reminded that November 6 was Election Day last year.

The Sandy move may have angered conservatives, but it seems to have cemented Christie in the minds of moderate, low-information voters as an affable and relatable guy who cares more about people and policy than politics. Christie has turned that opening into a chance to introduce himself to Americans as the mainstream Republican who isn’t quite as scary and conservative as some of the other guys who may be on the ballot. From sit down interviews with People magazine about romancing his wife to ones chronicling his struggle with weight loss, Christie and his staff seem to understand better than most Republicans how to speak to women voters, and where best to reach them.

Christie is also targeting young voters on topics and sites that interest them, like with his boardwalk confrontation with Snooki, a reality star, making the heavily trafficked celebrity gossip site TMZ. Not to leave out the mainstream male demographic, Christie appeared on the late-night show Jimmy Fallon this week, “slow-jamming” the news with the host. The “slow-jam” was at times funny, at times uncomfortable, and eminently viral (you can watch it here on the New York Post‘s website). Christie withstood a few jabs about his weight and basically made a press conference speech about why he chose to hold a special election for the Senate seat that the late Frank Lautenberg recently left open. It’s incredible just how far Fallon let Christie take his own self-promotion, and Fallon even serenaded the governor with the famous Jersey ballad “Born to Run,” referencing Fallon’s desire for Christie to make a go in 2016. The whole appearance, from start-to-finish, felt more like a campaign ad than a segment on late-night television. 

Chris Christie may be the first Republican who has manipulated the mainstream media as well as Bill Clinton and Barack Obama once did. The former pioneered the strategy, famously appearing on MTV and divulging his preference for briefs on a segment of Rock the Vote during his bid for reelection and playing the saxophone while he was still candidate Bill in 1992. Barack Obama has been a mainstay on late-night television during both campaigns and as president, not to mention in the pages of People magazine, often appearing there more frequently than individuals who have publicists that do nothing but work to get their images into those glossy pages.

As sad as it may be for the future of American political discourse, it seems that Christie’s attempts to ingrain himself in the pop culture world will likely get him farther than candidates who are planning on spending their energies in the next few years bolstering their records, lists of accomplishments and endorsements. If Rand Paul or Marco Rubio want to find themselves brainstorming their cabinet appointees in 2016, they should be spending more time romancing late-night hosts and a little less time filibustering and crafting legislation. Such a strategy may not make for an informed or enlightened electorate, but it seems to be the best way to find oneself in the West Wing.

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