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Chris Christie is losing the invisible primary. Does that mean he's doomed?

Jeff Zelvansky / Getty
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.
  1. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's hoped-for presidential bid is in huge trouble, according to several recent reports.
  2. Christie "is rapidly losing support among some of his most prominent home-state donors and power brokers," according to Matea Gold and Robert Costa of the Washington Post. These include former Gov. Tom Kean, state Sen. Joe Kyrillos, New York Jets owner Woody Johnson, and donor Lawrence Bathgate.
  3. Meanwhile, GOP elites who might have been inclined to support Christie are instead flocking to other contenders like Jeb Bush and Scott Walker, according to a report by Maggie Haberman and Nick Confessore of the New York Times.
  4. Back in 2011, seven key Iowa donors and activists tried to draft Christie to run for president. Now, just two of them are still supporting him, reports Jill Colvin of the Associated Press.

Christie is losing the invisible primary

These developments are very bad signs for Christie in the invisible primary, the important phase of the nomination battle in which party elites and activists decide which candidates are worth supporting. They make quite a contrast to the situation in mid-2011, when major donors unhappy with Romney's performance launched a high-profile "Draft Christie" effort, and 2013, when he was frequently listed as a top-tier contender.

But Christie's star began to fall when the Bridgegate scandal broke last year. More recently, Jeb Bush's early push has since succeeded in winning over much of the GOP establishment and donor class. And now Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has emerged early on as a top potential alternative to Bush, one who could be backed by more conservative elements of the party. Political commentators are already dropping Christie as a top tier contender, or wondering if he'll even officially run.

Christie's poor performance in the invisible primary means he'd start a presidential campaign as an underdog — but it doesn't, by itself, mean he's doomed. Only in 9 of the last 13 contested presidential nominations did a clear winner of the invisible primary emerge and go on to become the nominee, according to a metric used by the authors of The Party Decides. The exceptions were Dukakis in 1988, Kerry in 2004, and McCain and Obama in 2008.

Can Christie's charisma make him a comeback kid?

So what's the case for a Christie candidacy? It's all about his personality, apparently — according to Haberman and Confessore, friends of the New Jersey governor "say he is convinced that his raw talent and charisma can overcome the political obstacles in his way." Does this make sense?

In emphasizing his charisma, Christie may be thinking of the debate-o-rama spectacle in the last contest. Then, even candidates who seemed obviously unelectable, like Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich, briefly surged in the polls due to strong debate performances — and others who seemed formidable on paper, like Tim Pawlenty and Rick Perry, faltered. Gingrich even managed to win in South Carolina.

Of course, the early frontrunner Mitt Romney won that nomination in the end, despite what happened in the debates. So for a more encouraging scenario, Christie would have to go back one cycle further, to 2008.

Back then, John McCain trailed in national polls for many months, and was counted out by pundits. But he suddenly surged in December to win the New Hampshire primary in early January and, soon afterward, the nomination:

RCP NH 2008

Romney led New Hampshire polls for most of 2007. McCain only surged in December. (RealClearPolitics)

It's not yet clear how similar or different 2016's contest will be to 2008's. Back then, the potential establishment alternatives to McCain — Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney, and Fred Thompson — all had their own flaws, but it wasn't completely clear in advance that these flaws would sink them with voters. And, importantly, the winner of the Iowa caucuses ended up being not Romney but Mike Huckabee, a social conservative who the GOP establishment definitely didn't want to win the nomination. This allowed the party to rally behind McCain instead.

So, in the absence of establishment support that would make him a top-tier contender immediately, a lot of things have to go right for Christie. He has to hope that he dominates in the debates, that voter enthusiasm for Jeb Bush and Scott Walker will be tepid, that other potential challengers like Marco Rubio fail to catch fire, and that Iowa will go to Rand Paul or a social conservative who seems unelectable, so Christie could ride to the establishment's rescue in New Hampshire. Oh, and also, that no other shoes drop with the investigations into his administration, that he can successfully defend his home-state record, and that GOP voters actually like his personality.

It doesn't seem like a particularly likely scenario. Then again, it's a crowded field and every candidate has some flaws — so it might be worth a shot.