Economists tend to view events like the Republican convention in the agnostic light of strategy and incentives, in which lawmakers are rational creatures trying to maximize their political profit. (Yes, that view of politicians as rational can be lonely.) This view exposes a curious dilemma for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie as he prepares to deliver the keynote address at the convention Tuesday night.
Let's assume that, like virtually every politician in America, Christie wouldn't mind being the president. He made a mistake not running this year, in which Republicans reluctantly nominated a former blue-state governor with low favorability to go up against a vulnerable sitting president. But economics counsels us not to make decisions based on sunk costs or regrets. Let's game this out.
If Romney wins in November, the soonest Christie could run is 2020, barring a historically disastrous first term for the former Massachusetts governor. First, he will have to decide whether or not to run for re-election in New Jersey in 2013. Many suspect that popular Newark Mayor Cory Booker will be the Democratic candidate, meaning Christie would face a bruising election. Losing would damage him nationally, and winning would require that he solidify his blue-state bonafides. This will make running for national office more difficult, even seven years later—just ask Romney.
If Christie does not run again, he will have to find some way to keep himself relevant for seven years. Neither situation benefits him tremendously.
If Romney loses, on the other hand, the situation is much clearer. Christie will be one of a few immediate front-runners for the 2016 nomination as of Nov. 7, 2012. He will also have a reasonable excuse for not running again for governor of New Jersey and avoiding the aforementioned messiness.
Tuesday night's keynote address could be a breakout performance for Christie in the style of President Barack Obama's keynote at the 2004 convention. But if he wants to be president more than he wants Romney to be president, he might not want to do such a good job that he accidentally gets Romney elected.
Follow along with our predictions in real time at PredictWise.
David Rothschild has a Ph.D. in applied economics from the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter @DavMicRot and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. His ancestral home is New Jersey.