The wrong question to ask about the Chris Christie bridge scandal is how it will affect the New Jersey governor's presidential prospects in 2016. The right question to ask is how it affects his campaign right now.
I saw several pundits yesterday dismiss the idea that voters would still be focused on this scandal two years from now. They’re right -- as far as it goes. Even though presidential primary and caucus voters are among the most attentive of all voters, they could easily forget. There will be plenty of new stories between now and then, and as Bill Clinton proved in 1992, primary voters are sometimes willing to overlook seemingly devastating stories.
But what those pundits are missing is that the presidential campaign doesn’t begin in 2016 with the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. It began months ago, with the invisible primary. That’s the competition to secure support from key party actors, including politicians, party-aligned interest groups, campaign and governing professionals, formal party officials and staff, activists, and the partisan press. In effect, it’s the efforts of these party actors to coordinate and compete over the leadership of the party.
The invisible primary helps to structure, and often determines, what happens in the nomination battle. After all, by the time of the 2012 Iowa caucuses, it’s possible that Mitt Romney had the whole thing won. Seemingly viable contenders, including John Thune, Haley Barbour, Mitch Daniels, Tim Pawlenty and, yes, Sarah Palin had all dropped out by then. It’s misleading to say that all of them simply didn’t run; each certainly would have accepted the nomination if it could have been had. Each made at least some effort in the invisible primary, only to find that the price of continuing was too high given the probable chance of success.
Moreover, unlike voters, party actors can make more complex decisions than simply which candidate to support. They can back multiple candidates simultaneously, or spend their political and financial capital opposing an especially disfavored candidate. They can influence other party actors and send important signals about candidates through the press.
These party actors are far more influential than almost all other voters. And they care a lot about nomination battles. They may care intensely about ideology or about particular public policy positions; they may care intensely about electability, since many of them have a highly personal stake in whether their party captures the White House, what their personal relationship to the potential president is and how the presidential campaign affects down-ballot races.
So we can speculate about how voters might react to this scandal two years down the road. But we will learn more from good reporting about how Republican Party actors are handling the news -- both actors who were prepared to support Christie and those who would've found him at least minimally acceptable as the party's nominee.
By all accounts, in 2008 many Republican Party actors didn’t trust presidential candidate John McCain very much. But they liked his (apparent) electability, and McCain turned out to be a reasonable (albeit weak) consensus choice. So it’s not immediately obvious how these actors will respond to Christie’s emerging scandal. But we can be fairly certain that they are currently factoring it into their decisions. And those decisions are being made a lot sooner than 2016.