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Chris Christie Predicts Political ‘Fallout’ for Trump’s Trials
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Chris Christie Predicts Political ‘Fallout’ for Trump’s Trials

The former New Jersey governor talks to Dispatch Politics about his path to the nomination.

Happy Wednesday—and Happy Thanksgiving! Dispatch Politics will be back in your inboxes on Monday.

Up to Speed

  • The Commission on Presidential Debates on Monday announced dates and locations for three general-election presidential debates next year: one in Texas in September, two in Virginia and Utah in October. Whether anyone will show up, however, remains to be seen. The Republican Party voted last year to pull out of all debates sanctioned by the commission, and former President Donald Trump has thus far opted not to debate during the Republican primaries. Joe Biden’s campaign also has not committed to the debates.
  • Bob Vander Plaats—the prominent evangelical leader and GOP power broker in Iowa—announced Tuesday he is endorsing Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis for president. The move surprised few: Vander Plaats has long called for Republicans to move on from Trump and heaped praise on DeSantis, whom Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds also endorsed earlier this month. 
  • Trump lashed out at Vander Plaats in the wake of the endorsement, jeering in a statement at his unsuccessful mid-2000s attempts to run for governor and pointing out that the DeSantis campaign and two affiliated groups groups paid Vander Plaats’ nonprofit, the Family Leader Foundation, $95,000 this summer. (The payments, Reuters reported in August, were made for advertising at a candidate event and tables at a post-event dinner with Tucker Carlson.) Trump also doubled down on his attacks on R eynolds with a Tuesday video (falsely) calling her the “most unpopular governor in the entire United States of America”—and booked his first Iowa TV ads of the cycle.

Does Christie Have a Path?

Former Gov. Chris Christie speaks at the Hudson Institute November 15, 2023, in Washington. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Former Gov. Chris Christie speaks at the Hudson Institute November 15, 2023, in Washington. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

It’s been difficult to tell quite what to make of former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s second presidential campaign. On the one hand, he’s been the only candidate willing to go after Donald Trump bare-knuckle—likely a necessity if anyone is ever going to overtake the shadow incumbent. 

But his fitness as a vessel for that message is called into question by his deep unpopularity with the GOP base: Morning Consult polling routinely finds him twice as unpopular among Republican voters as any other primary candidate, and his criticisms of Trump have drawn choruses of boos at some candidate events. He’s still polling under 3 percent nationally, he’s all but written off the Iowa caucuses, and his likeliest near-term impact may be simply to hamstring former Gov. Nikki Haley in New Hampshire, who is popular among some of the same independent voters who like Christie in the Granite State.

On Friday, the Christie campaign released a memo outlining what Christie sees as his current path forward and laying out his argument that calls for an immediate consolidation of the presidential field are premature. And on Tuesday, Christie spoke with Dispatch Politics about why he thinks he is still best positioned to survive the early nominating contests and come out the other side as the party’s Trump alternative. Here’s that conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Dispatch Politics: “The only path to victory is through Donald Trump.” That’s been a mantra for you throughout this whole campaign, and as far as we’re concerned, it’s obviously correct. You’ve been pursuing that strategy, you’ve been on every debate stage, but Trump’s status as the frontrunner has only solidified. Have you been surprised by that, and do you think it’s likely to change?

Christie: Look, I don’t think that his consolidation has really grown. I think it’s pretty much stayed where it is—and that’s just to the national polls. If you look at what’s going on in Iowa or New Hampshire, he’s in the 40s. Put the shoe on the other foot: If Joe Biden were in the Democratic primary and in the 40s, there’d be people looking at it sounding, you know, five-alarm fire time. 

Trump is essentially an incumbent in this race in the Republican primary. He’s won the nomination the last two times. And you have much more than 50 percent of the voters in a Republican primary in the early states who say they don’t want him—and I think that’s really the story. These national polls are just ridiculous. There’s no reason to pay any attention to them. If he were to lose Iowa, for instance, or lose New Hampshire, those national polls would change in three days. I’ve always said—I think I said back when I met with you guys in June—that nothing was going to change in this race until people started to vote. And I still believe that. 

DP: I wanted to ask about New Hampshire. You’ve been seeing a surge there, Nikki Haley’s been seeing a surge there, DeSantis has faded. All three of you have appeared in recent days at events with Gov. Chris Sununu. He seems to be enjoying sizing you all up, and he’s likely to endorse. Do you think you’re likely to land that endorsement, and is that central to your strategy for the state?

Christie: I don’t know. I have a great relationship with the governor—we’ve known each other for 12 years and have always gotten along well. I hope I get his endorsement, but I have not a clue, and I think anybody who tells you they think they do are just making it up. In terms of centrality, I just have never known—being someone whose endorsement has been pursued over time, I never really know whether it has much of an impact at all. Quite frankly, I think it’ll have more of an impact with all of you than it actually will broadly in an election.

That being said, every little bit helps in an election, and certainly the support of a popular incumbent governor can’t hurt your campaign. And I’d love to have it also because, let’s face it, Chris and I are the two most prominent national Republicans who’ve been willing to speak out strongly against Trump’s fitness for the presidency. Not Nikky Haley, not Ron DeSantis, not Tim Scott, not Mike Pence. It’s been me and Chris Sununu. So, I would hope that he makes an endorsement consistent with his principles.

DP: It’s not really a secret why you and Haley are both seeing a surge in New Hampshire: You’re both appealing more to some of the independents, some of the Democratic crossover voters in that state. To the extent that you and she are probably one and two for a lot of those voters right now, what’s your pitch to that kind of voter at your events in New Hampshire?

Christie: My pitch is that I’m the most consistent person in the race in terms of what I think the central issues are. The central issue in the Republican primary is Donald Trump, and anybody who tries to pretend differently is not being honest. And I’ve been very direct about what I feel about Trump’s fitness for the presidency, his fitness as a nominee, and the fact that I believe—and I believe it’ll be proven by a jury this spring—that he committed crimes while in the presidency.

And yet Gov. Haley says she thinks he was the right president at the right time, and she’d be inclined to pardon him if she became president. And she raised her hand and said that she would support him even if he was a convicted felon. I’m the only one left in this race, on the stage, that didn’t do that. And I think if independent voters and reasonable Republicans look at that in terms of who they can rely on to tell them the truth, to be direct with them, and someone they can count on in terms of their principles, then I think I’m the choice. 

DP: Right now, Haley’s significantly outpolling you in Iowa, she’s outpolling you in New Hampshire, South Carolina, Nevada. In New Hampshire, that’s the only state where you are regularly polling above 5 percent right now. What do you say to the argument—which a lot of people have been making recently—that if you stick this campaign out, it’s possible that your likeliest concrete contribution is just preventing Haley from consolidating in New Hampshire, making that Trump cakewalk to Super Tuesday even easier?

Christie: Look, I’m within the margin of error of Nikki Haley in any of these polls. So you can make the same argument the other way. And I think if you made it the other way, that Nikki should get out for me, I think it would be unfair as well. This is not a simple math equation where you add up everybody else, and if everybody else dropped out one state in, everyone would get those votes. Some people would vote for Trump. Some people wouldn’t vote at all. So it’s just not that simple. The fact is that at this stage in 2015, Jeb Bush was winning the New Hampshire primary; at this stage in 2015, Ben Carson was +10 in Iowa. In 2015, the exit polls showed us that over 50 percent of New Hampshire primary voters made their decision in the last three days before the primary.

(Editor’s note: Haley is currently leading Christie by an average of 7 points in New Hampshire polls, comfortably outside the margin of error. Christie is also misremembering the conditions of the 2016 primary cycle. In fact, Bush led Trump only briefly in New Hampshire in early summer 2015, and Trump surpassed him permanently that July. Carson momentarily surged above Trump in Iowa in late October 2015, leading Trump by about 9 points in the Real Clear Politics polling average before plummeting again in early November.)

So, look, I know that you guys love to obsess about this stuff, and you want it to be over. Sorry, the election’s set for January 23 in New Hampshire. And as far as me being behind her in Iowa, the fact that at this point I’m only about 10 points behind her in Iowa, and I’ve not spent one minute there or one dollar, and she has spent millions and millions of dollars and weeks and weeks in Iowa—I don’t know what that’s supposed to tell us. I made it very clear from the beginning that I wasn’t going to compete in Iowa. I haven’t competed in Iowa. So why would anybody be surprised that she would be ahead of me in Iowa?

DP: I will say as a campaigns guy I personally will not be happy when it’s over. I won’t know what to do with myself when it’s over. But the reason I ask is because nobody knows better than you, as you’ve said, that before a challenger can beat Trump you have to somehow get to that two-way race against him. 

Christie: Well, our memo lays down exactly how you get there. We do very well in New Hampshire. Nikki Haley loses in South Carolina to Donald Trump. If she loses in South Carolina to Donald Trump, in her home state, how does she justify staying in the race? If she’s not going to win her home state, where she was a two-term governor, where is she going to win exactly? If Ron DeSantis does not win Iowa after getting Kim Reynolds’ endorsement, and now today Bob Vander Plaats’ endorsement, where exactly in the next number of states is Ron DeSantis going to win? 

So how it gets down to a one-on-one race—we’re in this until the convention. And we’re the ones with the burn rate of $15,000 a day, as opposed to [$120,000] a day on Ron DeSantis. We’re going to have the money to stay in this race and continue to compete, and we have the clearest message against Donald Trump. You can’t cuddle up to Donald Trump and expect to beat him at the same time. 

DP: So to map out one plausible way this goes here: Say Trump wins Iowa, DeSantis comes second. Trump wins New Hampshire, you come second there. Trump wins South Carolina, Haley takes second. Are you saying that forecloses those two folks’ paths in a way it doesn’t necessarily foreclose yours? In theory, they could turn the money spigot down too. 

Christie: Yeah, but they haven’t—they could, but they haven’t. They’re both competing in Iowa and spending millions on ads in Iowa. We can’t tell these things until the election actually happens, but if you’re Ron DeSantis, you’ve moved your staff to Iowa, you’ve got the endorsement of the very popular incumbent governor and of the leader—or at least one of the leaders—of the evangelical community in Iowa, and you have spent tens of millions of dollars in Iowa between the campaign and Never Back Down, and you don’t win that race—where are you going to win? 

I mean, I don’t understand why you guys can’t understand this. It’s pretty simple. He’s made the decision to make Iowa his number one objective and spend a lot of money there. So the fact is that he’s got to win—or do extraordinarily well and come close. And if he does, then great—he’s going to continue. But if he doesn’t, I think there’ll be real questions raised. And it’s even worse for Gov. Haley, because South Carolina’s her home state. And I mean, again, like you said—well, she comes in second. Well, if I came in second in New Jersey, I think people would rightfully be asking—well, you were the two-term governor there. You’ve lived there your whole life. If you’re not going to win there, where are you going to win? 

DP: Well, I don’t think the scenario I just sketched out is particularly good news for Haley or DeSantis either. I mean, the person it seems to be really good news for is Donald Trump. 

Christie: The fact is that the variable that is very rarely written about is that the day before Super Tuesday, [Trump] goes into a courtroom in Washington, D.C., and will be there five days a week for the next six to eight weeks. Having Mark Meadows, his former chief of staff, sit 20 feet from him and admit that he committed crimes at Donald Trump’s direction and that he watched Donald Trump commit crimes. Not some left-wing prosecutor, not some product of the two-tiered system of justice that Trump talks about, but one of the founders of the Freedom Caucus and the guy that he called the next James Baker when he made him chief of staff. 

If you don’t think the race is going to change at that point, then, you know, I think you’re wrong. And I think the race will change significantly. Even the New York Times polling in the general election showed that Trump went from winning five of six swing states against Biden to losing all six if he’s convicted. And I don’t know if the numbers are correct, but the trend is absolutely undeniable.  

And so my view is, you have to do the very best you can in these early states, which I intend to do, and then be ready for the fallout of his conviction. And it’s different than an indictment. An indictment is a set of accusations by a justice system that lots of Republicans think is biased. I think they feel much differently about a jury—and feel much differently when Mark Meadows, a conservative Republican from North Carolina, gets on the stand and accuses his former boss of committing crimes on his watch and directing him and others to commit crimes on his behalf to obstruct the results of the election and keep him in power. 

No, look, if it doesn’t and I turn out to be wrong, then all you guys will be right and Donald Trump will be the nominee. But I don’t believe that. And I’m running because I believe our standards have to be higher and better, both in terms of who we nominate and how you pursue that nomination in terms of your honesty with the American people. And the only thing to say to them, honestly, is that this guy’s unfit for the presidency.

Notable and Quotable 

“President Trump has reduced his weight through an improved diet and continued daily physical activity, while maintaining a rigorous schedule. It is my opinion that President Trump is currently in excellent health, and with his continued interest in preventative health monitoring and maintenance, he will continue to enjoy a healthy active lifestyle for years to come.”

—Dr. Bruce Aronwald, personal physician to Donald Trump, November 20, 2023

Andrew Egger is a former associate editor for The Dispatch.

David M. Drucker is a senior writer at The Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he was a senior correspondent for the Washington Examiner. When Drucker is not covering American politics for The Dispatch, he enjoys hanging out with his two boys and listening to his wife's excellent taste in music.