Saturday, July 2, 2011

Is Chris Christie Running for President? Part II

Continued from Part I.

What kind of analysis can we employ to make a guess about whether a potential candidate will actually run for president? Ultimately it is a "guess," especially when a candidate has the ability to change his mind, but there are three factors worth looking at: Motive, means, and opportunity. In popular culture, these are the elements needed to prove that a suspect committed a crime. Perhaps unnervingly, they can also be used to predict someone's presidential intentions.

The first element, motive, refers to a candidate's desire to run for president and to become president. For most high-level politicians, motive is assumed. It's rare for someone to gain high political office without first possessing a lot of ambition. That's because politics is a difficult business, and ambition is needed to motivate a politician to get through the difficult times.

But motive isn't always present. As we mentioned in Part I, Mike Huckabee decided not to run because for whatever reason, his heart wasn't in it. In 2008, Fred Thompson did run, but he did so in a half-hearted way because he wasn't fully committed. A large portion of Newt Gingrich's campaign staff quit, apparently feeling Gingrich wasn't taking the campaign seriously enough. Other examples include those who lack a desire to get into politics. General David Petraeus has been asked about whether he might run for president, but it's clear he's not interested. Donald Trump could have gotten involved in politics, but he'd rather stick with the business world.

What about Chris Christie? While he denies he'll run for president this time, he won't close the door on 2016. That's a strong hint that he has a desire to become president--if not now, then later. When interviewed by Piers Morgan on CNN earlier this month, Morgan visited Christie's high school and observed that Christie was "president of everything" when he was a student. It's fair to say Christie possesses the motive to run for president.

The second element, means, refers to a candidate's political abilities. Specifically, a candidate possesses the means if he is capable of winning the presidential nomination of his party and winning a general election. Since we're dealing with a candidate's own decision whether to run, this is a matter of his perception. If a candidate thinks he has the capability of winning the presidency, he has the means.

Politicians who operate at a high level not only possess ambition, but also ego. Usually they think they can become president unless there's evidence to the contrary: lack of popularity, low poll numbers, etc. If Sarah Palin finally decides not to run, it will be because she's seen enough polls to convince her she lacks the means to win--her negatives are too high.

As for Christie, he's largely answered this question. Earlier this year, Christie claimed in an interview that politically-minded people had been coming to him plotting out a course where he could win. Christie explained that he already knew that he could win the nomination and the presidency. Christie's popularity, combined with positive feedback from Republicans around the country and political commentators, have almost certainly convinced Christie he is presidential material. It's fair to say Christie thinks he possesses the means.

The final element, opportunity, refers to timing. If a candidate thinks he has the means to become president, does he think he can win this election? Again, it's a matter of the candidate's own perception.

Even the best and most confident politicians can feel the timing isn't right. If the incumbent president is a member of your own party, it's unlikely you'll run against him. You'll wait for the next election instead. Likewise, if you think the other party's incumbent is unbeatable for reelection, you'll take a pass. In 1992, nearly all of the top Democratic contenders thought George Bush, Sr. was unbeatable after America won the Persian Gulf War. They skipped the election and were stunned to see Bill Clinton win. In 2004, Hillary Clinton knew she could win the nomination of her party, but thought George W. Bush was too difficult to defeat. She felt 2008 was her opportunity. And there are a number of rising stars in the Republican Party today who intend to run in 2016 or 2020, when they have more experience.

Christie, too, probably did not originally think he had the opportunity to run in 2012. He was too new to the national scene, and wanted to serve out a full term as New Jersey's governor. But then videos of Christie went "viral" and he became a favorite of both the Tea Party and establishment wings of the Republican Party. When the Republican 2012 field became settled, voters were dissatisfied with the available choices. And President Obama's approval ratings flatlined, making the Republican nomination very attractive.

Christie's remarks about "knowing" he can win were directed at the 2012 nomination and presidency. On that basis, it may be fair to say Christie knows he has the opportunity. Over the next few months, which comprise Phase Two of the primary, Republicans will decide whether they are still dissatisfied with the candidates already in the race. If things continue as they are, Christie should feel he has the motive, means, and opportunity to become president.

On the other hand, as we saw with Mitch Daniels, family matters. Christie's wife and children could decide it's too soon, and Christie might give them veto power. They could have already done so. But families can change their minds, too. Especially if, by September, the Republican Party still thinks it needs Christie.