His presidential ambitions are big. It's the numbers that have gotten small. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg
His presidential ambitions are big. It's the numbers that have gotten small. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

I was planning to write about Chris Christie’s recent polling numbers, but veteran Republican consultant Mike Murphy already summed up the case really well in two tweets (combined here):

"Lots of Christie poll analysis in media today. Remember: 1.) his R numbers still strong. D's and I's dropping. Don't vote in R primaries. 2.) it does hurt his winner argument in donor echo chamber. 3.) inevitable that his D/I numbers drop as he enters GOP candidate land in '15."

Taking these one at a time . . . .

First, Republicans still like Christie -- that's the least important point. Most Republican voters will like almost any viable candidate right through the nomination process. And virtually all Republican voters will like the eventual nominee, even if they opposed him or her during the primaries. At any rate, even beyond endorsements and other elite cues, events between now and 2016 will determine whether Christie’s scandals are ancient history or disqualifying for rank-and-file voters in the primaries and caucuses.

Murphy's second and third points are far more important. As I’ve said, Christie's scandal isn’t particularly relevant to what happens once 2016 rolls around; it’s relevant to what happens right now. It concerns not only donors but every group of party actors: politicians, party-aligned interest groups, campaign and governing professionals, activists and more. To the extent that members of these groups were attracted to Christie because of perceptions about his electability, it’s certainly possible that his changing poll numbers with independents and Democrats could cool their interest.

If these party insiders are smart, however, they’ll realize what Murphy evidently does: that Christie’s poll numbers were probably artificially high thanks to his (largely nonpartisan) high visibility in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in 2012, and perhaps due to his landslide re-election last November. (An apt comparison can be made to Hillary Clinton’s artificially high polling numbers when she was secretary of state and similarly removed from partisan back-and-forth.)

The funny thing is, we don’t really know how many party actors are fooled by inflated polling numbers, and therefore how big a deal it is when those numbers float down to more realistic levels. It’s natural to think of people who matter in the invisible primary as in-the-know elites, but as Murphy suggests (“donor echo chamber”) those who are part of the insider decision-making process may be influenced by false perceptions about candidates or the political environment. Insider knowledge isn’t necessarily factual knowledge.

Of course, polling isn’t the only thing that could influence party actors’ views of Christie. It’s just one piece of the puzzle. How big? The only way to get a sense is through good reporting on what various party actors are saying and doing. We’ve had some of that; but because important decisions are being made right now, we could use more. That would help us interpret the significance of those Christie polls.