Rejected by Voters (and Maybe Trump), Christie's in Retreat

Gov. Christie may have picked a winner, but he isn't acting like one lately.
by | December 12, 2016 AT 12:01 PM

By Maddie Hanna & Andrew Seidman

Gov. Christie may have picked a winner, but he isn't acting like one lately.

Instead of taking a victory lap after his early bet on Donald Trump proved correct, Christie has been avoiding public scrutiny as he weathers the worst approval ratings of his tenure and the attention to his non-selection (so far) for a job joining the president-elect in Washington.

The governor, who built a national reputation in part on his willingness to verbally spar with constituents and reporters, has stayed out of the fray in recent public appearances, with a slate of ceremonial and noncontroversial events: touting a long-in-the-works school ground-breaking in Trenton and celebrating an electric company merger reached nearly two years ago.

Except on the day of the fatal NJ Transit train crash in Hoboken, Christie has not held a news conference since the start of the trial in September of two of his former allies in the George Washington Bridge lane-closure scandal. At other public events, he has refused to take questions.

A federal jury convicted the aides last month of conspiring to intentionally misuse the resources of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owns the bridge. Afterward, Christie granted an interview to a national journalist who didn't attend the trial.

As Christie left a roundtable Wednesday on battling addiction -- an issue he has long emphasized -- a reporter asked the governor if he would field questions.

"No. Absolutely not," Christie said. He gave no response when asked if he would ever take questions again.

Doubting his version

In 2014, Christie, who was then preparing for a presidential run, ignored the media for months until a law firm he hired to investigate the bridge scandal released a taxpayer-funded report that pinned the scheme on what it described as two rogue aides and concluded that the governor was not involved.

But during the recent trial, multiple Christie allies who were not charged in the scheme testified that they had told him about his aides' possible involvement before he publicly declared he was "confident" his senior staff had no knowledge of it. Recent polls show New Jersey voters doubt the governor's version of events.

"Once your job approval or public support rating drops to the level his has, it's impossible to turn it around," said Carl Golden, who served as press secretary for former Republican Govs. Tom Kean and Christie Whitman. Christie's approval rating fell to 18 percent in a Fairleigh Dickinson University PublicMind poll released last week.

The strategy of avoiding media questions "is just a recognition that my time, whenever it got there, is now gone," Golden said.

Courting the press

Earlier in his career, Christie used his relationship with the press to shape his political identity.

As U.S. attorney for New Jersey from 2002 to 2008, Christie assiduously courted the press in cultivating a reputation as an anticorruption crusader.

Then as governor, he pursued something of a two-pronged media strategy: first, assembling a sophisticated communications team that captured his every move for potential YouTube celebrity, effectively bypassing the press corps to deliver his message; and second, gearing up for combat -- sometimes playfully -- against a media widely loathed by the right and by much of the public.

"You must be the thinnest-skinned guy in America," he joked to a Star-Ledger columnist in a May 2010 news conference; the clip went viral on YouTube.

And he retaliated against perceived media slights by placing reporters in an unofficial "penalty box," refusing to take their questions and ordering his staff to freeze them out.

Now it is Christie who has been placed in a penalty box -- by New Jersey voters itching for him to leave, and apparently by Trump, who has left Christie to finish his term as one of the most unpopular governors in Garden State history.

No other New Jersey governor has experienced such an extraordinary shift in public opinion, from a high exceeding 70 percent approval in multiple polls in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy to 18 percent now, a swing of more than 50 points.

Christie's rating in a Quinnipiac University poll last week -- with 19 percent of New Jersey voters approving, 77 percent disapproving -- was the lowest for any governor in any state in 20 years of the poll.

In modern polling, the only two New Jersey governors whose low ratings have been in the range of Christie's are Democrats Brendan Byrne and Jim Florio, "and those were specifically for tax hikes that caught people off guard," said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute.

Even Jim McGreevey, tarred by scandal for much of his brief governorship, sank to just above 30 percent approval. (A month after he announced he would resign in 2004 amid an extramarital affair, a plurality of voters actually approved of his job performance, according to Rutgers-Eagleton.)

Christie rode his popularity after Sandy for a year, gaining support from constituents who admired the governor's willingness to battle his own party in Washington over a delay in federal relief legislation. He was reelected by a landslide in November 2013.

Then the bridge scandal erupted in January 2014. After an initial plunge, his ratings hung in the 40s, but began falling again as Christie, then the chairman of the Republican Governors Association, ramped up his travel out of state.

"And I think that was the key. A lot of people thought: Here's a guy who had potential to be a really good governor. We've discovered he was just using us for his own personal ambition," Murray said.

Lagging economy

The recent bridge trial "hardened people's beliefs" that Christie knew more than he had said, Murray said.

Of New Jersey voters who followed the trial, 71 percent believed Christie should have been a defendant, according to the PublicMind poll.

New Jersey also has lagged in economic recovery under Christie. "In many ways, he inherited a mess. But ultimately, people look to the top," said Krista Jenkins, a Fairleigh Dickinson political scientist and director of the PublicMind poll. "He's been around" for nearly seven years, and "eventually people tire of their leaders and start looking for new ideas."

By shunning the press, Christie, who has a year left in his term, may preserve the possibility of an amicable divorce.

Christie doesn't want to give Trump "any reason not to offer him the third undersecretary of whatever, because he'll take it, if it's offered," Murray said.

(c)2016 The Philadelphia Inquirer