Jonathan Bernstein objects to the notion that it’s Chris Christie’s supposed ability to speak like an “average Joe” than makes him a strong candidate to win the Republican party’s 2016 presidential nomination. Specifically he objects to a Chris Cilizza post in which he writes that:
Christie has one thing that no other candidate — not Marco Rubio, not Jeb Bush, not Rand Paul, not Scott Walker — who is thinking about running for the GOP nod in 2016 does: An ability to talk like a normal person.
As Mitt Romney, John Kerry and Al Gore can attest — and not in a good way — being, or at least seeming, like an average Joe is critically important to your chances of winning.
But as Bernstein observes, Romney, Kerry and Gore each won their party’s nominations! So, for that matter, did Michael Dukakis! And George HW Bush! GHWB even managed to be elected president (albeit in a contest unfair types might label the Battle of the Dweebs). As failures go these guys were actually pretty successful even though none of them were credible impersonators of the “average Joe”. I mean, only one person gets to be President of the United States but Dukakis, Romney, Kerry et al made it to the final round. That being so and considering their distinct lack of Average Joeness you might think that being – or seeming – like an Average Joe is an over-rated skill or quality.
Because it is! What matters is something slightly different. Voters need to be able to imagine the candidate sitting behind that big desk in the Oval Office. Can they picture the candidate addressing the nation? Are they comfortable with that picture?
And those questions are situational too. Democratic voters in 2004 were, in the end, more comfortable with the idea of President Kerry than they were with the notion of President Edwards or President Dean or President Clark. That does not mean Kerry was more or less likeable than his rivals, merely that he convinced a greater share of primary voters that he a) could be a plausible president and b) he had the best chance of defeating George W Bush. And because of a) then b). You could make the same argument about Mitt Romney in 2012.
Which is one reason why Christie is a stronger candidate for 2016 than, say, Rand Paul. Presidentialism is a tough thing to define but it is something that, like grace, you know when you see it. Paul’s growing band of admirers will want for nothing in the motivation stakes but I suspect the Kentucky Senator lacks the ability to reassure voters or make them feel comfortable. He’s too passionate and too passionate about causes tangential to most American lives to give off the air of grounded competence many voters look for.
That’s a significant problem. When pundits talk about likeability they really mean to talk about comfort level. The ability to communicate clearly and in language that does not seem politically-scripted certainly helps; so does some measure of empathy for “ordinary” and “hard-working” American families. But it is not enough on its own.
In any case for many Republicans, Christie’s appeal – at present – lies less in his ability to speak Average Joe and more in his willingness to take a conservative baseball bat to a liberal cocktail party. He’s no pointy-headed smoothie! Yay! Christie’s winning brand of blue-collar conservatism in a blue state gives him credibility already and gives him the “authenticity” pundits seem to crave. It makes him stand out from the rest of the nascent Republican field and that’s a definite plus for Christie at this stage of the cycle. But it’s too soon to declare him the presumptive favourite for the nomination not least because campaigning on the national stage – as Rick Perry might remind you – is a different ballgame.
Being likeable is one thing but it’s more important for a candidate to be respected. That means they need to project some brand of presidentialism which is not quite the same thing as being able to talk Average Joe even if that quality may also be extremely useful. We don’t know if Christie can do that yet.