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The VICE Guide to the 2016 Election

Why the Hell Is Chris Christie Running for President?

The New Jersey governor's 2016 campaign is already a joke, but the candidate seems to be the only one who doesn't get the punchline.
June 30, 2015, 9:58pm
Photo by Gage Skidmore via Flickr

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie confirmed today that he is, in fact, running for president, returning to his old high school to officially launch what is, by most measures, an already sinking 2016 campaign.

"I'm not running for president of the United States as a surrogate for being elected prom king of America," Christie declared Tuesday morning. "When I stand up on a stage like this in front of all of you there is one thing you will know for sure: I mean what I say and I say what I mean. And unlike some people who offer themselves for the presidency in 2016, you're not going to have to wonder whether I can do it or not."

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Two years after being heralded as the tough-talking New Jersey bro who would save the Republican Party from irrelevancy, Christie's nascent White House bid has become more or less a joke. Recent presidential polling shows support for Christie hovering in the low-single digits, putting him in the same tier as other 2016 Republican tryhards like Donald Trump, Rick Perry, and Rick Santorum.

More remarkably, as the New York Times' Michael Barbaro noted, a full 55 percent of Republican primary voters now say that they can't imagine voting for Christie in 2016, according to a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal survey. In the meantime, the deep-pocketed Wall Street donors who tried desperately to get Christie to run against Mitt Romney in 2012 have been jumping ship, throwing their support behind more palatable White House contenders like Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and Scott Walker.

Even in New Jersey—ostensibly the wellspring of support for the Northeast Republican—Christie's approval rating has plummeted, plagued by scandals and a flagging economy. The latter in particular could be problematic for Christie's 2016 message, given how much he likes to talk up his pro-business record. New Jersey ranked 46 out of 50 states in terms of economic growth last year. Poverty rates are up, tax revenues are down, and a recent Moody's report claimed that the state has only recovered about 62 percent of jobs lost during the recession.

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The state's public finances are also a disaster, plagued by billions in unfunded pension liabilities that have led to a series of credit downgrades for the state. And while Christie recently won a court battle that allows the state to cut $1.57 billion from its public pension funds—and saves the governor from having to raise taxes during his presidential campaign—the victory won't do anything to actually solve New Jersey's dire pension situation. And it has exacerbated tensions between the governor and his numerous critics throughout the state.

So fraught is Christie's standing in his home state, that even the location of his campaign announcement Tuesday—Livingston High School, Christie's alma mater in north New Jersey—caused a PR debacle, drawing the ire of Democrats and public school teachers who pointed out that, like most districts in New Jersey, Livingston public schools have been hit hard by the governor's education budget cuts. The district's interim superintendent James O'Neill, a longtime Christie foe, told Newark's Star-Ledger that he would not be present for Christie's speech Tuesday. "I will be in my office," O'Neill said. "I would feel like a hypocrite if I attended the event."

Incidentally, the site Christie's launch speech is also tied, at least tangentially, to the biggest albatross hanging around the governor's campaign, namely, Bridgegate. It was while attending high school at Livingston that Christie met David Wildstein, a hockey buddy who the governor appointed to a job at the Port Authority, and later pretended not to know when it was revealed that Wildstein coordinated with Christie's staff to close lanes on the George Washington Bridge in September 2013.

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Wildstein pleaded guilty to the scheme earlier this year, admitting to federal prosecutors that he and his alleged collaborators orchestrated the lane closures, and subsequent traffic jam, as political retribution against the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, New Jersey, who had declined to endorse Christie's reelection bid. Two of Christie's former aides have since been indicted.

While it seems unlikely that Christie will face criminal charges in the scandal, Wildstein's lawyer hinted last month that evidence would show the governor knew more about the lane closures than he's claimed. New Jersey voters, however, apparently don't need much convincing: A recent poll from Monmouth University found that whopping 69 percent of New Jersey adults don't think Christie has been totally honest about what he knew about Bridegegate.

The numbers suggest that, beyond the legal issues, the real problem for Christie is that the scandal turned his biggest political asset—his brash, tough-talking personality—into his campaign's biggest liability, confirming suspicions that while the governor can be charming, he is also a vindictive and shady bully. Or, as one New Jersey journalist noted in an editorial headline Tuesday, "After 14 years of watching Chris Christie, a warning: He lies."

In his speech Tuesday, Christie was all self-assurance and bravado, promising voters that "you're going to get what I think—whether you like it or not." A quick glance at his campaign's new #TellingItLikeItIs hashtag suggests it may end up being the other way around.

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— Pat H. (@PH60839)June 30, 2015

— Phil Sorensen (@tahoesorensen)June 30, 2015

Trains at Penn Station have just been fucked all day. Your move — richard, delayed (@umequivocal)June 30, 2015

— Nancy Osborne (@NancyOsborne180)June 30, 2015

But if Christie's 2016 candidacy has become a joke, the candidate himself still doesn't seem to get that he is the punch line. "I think the biggest problem with so many people is getting attention," he told NBC's Matt Lauer, "and I've never had any problem getting attention."

Follow Grace Wyler on Twitter.