Governor Christie or President Christie?

David Rothschild

The prediction markets, and the media, are starting to focus on Chris Christie as a viable candidate for the Republican nomination. The markets currently have him at 4.7 percent of winning the nomination--even though they handicap the chances of him running in the first place at a 10.7 percent likelihood. And while 4.7 percent isn't impressive in strict numerical terms, the figure puts Christie in a solid fourth place in a crowded GOP field, behind Romney at 39.1 percent, Perry at 38.4 percent and the also-unannounced Sarah Palin at 6.1 percent.

Curiously, Christie's perch on the edge of the 2012 Republican field recalls Mitt Romney's situation in Massachusetts. In 2005, midway through his first term as a Republican governor of a Democratic state, Romney announced he would not seek re-election, but instead run for president. That freed Romney up to quickly distance himself from his adopted state--a rather urgent need, given Massachusetts reputation as a hotbed of liberal politics, witnessed in both the derisive conservative coinage "Taxachusetts." And stepping outside his role as governor also permitted Romney to begin addressing the far trickier challenge of distancing himself from the state's universal health-care system that he championed and helped create.

So if Christie truly has ambitions to seek national office, he will have to start distancing himself from New Jersey and the kind of positions that get people elected in New Jersey. This process seems already to be under way. In the last few months, as buzz around a possibly Christie candidacy has built, the governor has reversed himself--or conspicuously aired doubts about--positions that are squarely in the mainstream of  New Jersey public opinion. He has become agnostic on teaching evolution, he vetoed state funding for family planning and he has pulled state money out of projects designed to remediate the impact of global warming, even though has has previously admitted that climate change is a real problem associated with human activity. If he goes ahead with a presidential run, Christie will find himself offering stronger endorsements of these sorts of positions--for the simple reason that they would enhance his appeal in a competitive Republican field, even as they alienate the average New Jersey voter.

And if New Jersey voters start following Christie's feints at a presidential bid more closely, the governor could lose crucial home-state support. Christie now has an approval number of 47 percent and disapproval numbers of 46 percent.--a solid showing for a sitting governor in the middle of his term. But if he runs for re-election, look for his opponents to hammer him with ads on the above social issues. And that would be on top of the controversy sure to be ginned up over his fights with the school teachers, school budgets, and the state judiciary --to say nothing of his somewhat infamous, and impatient, interactions with state citizens and the press.

The federal-state funding nexus will likewise come in for closer scrutiny. Critics will leap to attack Christie in the all-too-likely event that trains will be derailed or otherwise shut down between New York and New Jersey after he killed a supplemnetary tunnel into New York City that had federal funding. At the same time, he will remind voters of his success in procuring money from the private sector--such as the $100 million gift that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg granted to Newark's schools.

In short, Christie is still very viable in a bid to be re-elected as governor. But if he decides to run for president or continues flirting with national Republicans, Christie could well end up jeopardizing his chances for re-election as governor in 2013.

Christie also faces a related bind in his home state. If he focuses principally on his effort to win the governorship again in 2013, he could badly damage his 2016 presidential prospects. Winning in 2013 will require him to tone down his recent overtures to the national GOP base--and losing in 2013 would likely prompt many 2016 primary voters to regard Christie skeptically as a nonstarter on the national stage.

So comparatively speaking, Christie's best bet may be to run for the nomination in 2012--and lose. Recent history shows that voters aren't likely to hold losing national bids against candidates. Romney has come on strong in 2012 after a disappointing showing in the 2008 primary cycle.  And after losing on the general-election ticket in 2008, Palin walked away from her governorship with no appreciable damage to her viability as a candidate. Failure isn't always a taboo in national politics--but bad timing almost always is.

David Rothschild is an economist at Yahoo! Research. He has a PhD in applied economics from the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. His dissertation is in creating aggregated forecasts from individual-level information. Follow me on Twitter @DavMicRot and email me at PredictionBlogger@Yahoo.com.