Chris Christie is heading into the first Republican presidential debate of the election season in a position he likely never expected: near the bottom.
The New Jersey governor, initially viewed as a top-tier candidate, is in danger of not making it into next week’s prime-time Fox News debate because of low polling numbers. Instead, he could be relegated to an earlier debate with candidates who are polling in the low single digits.
His challenge was underscored Thursday when a Quinnipiac University poll found Christie slipped to tenth place nationally, his lowest showing since the group began polling for the 2016 presidential primary. According to the survey, just 3% of Republicans polled said they plan to support Christie, a drop from 12% this time last year.
Other polls have illustrated a similar trend.
Although the first primary season contest isn’t until January, polling matters right now for candidates. On Tuesday, Fox will average the five most-recent polls that conform to their methodology and, according to rules set by the network, only the top ten candidates will appear at the prime-time event. The rest will debate during a time slot with fewer viewers.
Christie’s slide shows how quickly the presidential race has changed since the 17-member field began to take shape this spring. Christie, who in 2012 was given a prime speaking spot at the Republican National Convention, is now scrambling to give his campaign momentum going into the fall.
And much of that effort could be blunted by the other self-styled straight-talker in the campaign: Donald Trump, who is leading most polls.
“My gut feeling is that the governor is very frustrated with the way things are going,” said Bob Ingle, the New Jersey-based author of a biography about Christie who served as a panelist during Christie’s early gubernatorial debates. “Having all these candidates, it just diluted everybody. But having Trump come in, that diluted it even more.”
Christie’s campaign didn’t respond to requests for comment, though the governor has expressed confidence that his polling will rise.
If the prime-time contest is the equivalent of the Thanksgiving “adult table” of presidential debates, Christie is the one sitting on the piano bench squeezed up to the far corner. And Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal are currently nipping at Christie’s heels to make it into the main debate.
Republican strategists point to several possible reasons for the governor’s decline: A fiercely competitive field, his inability to connect with the party’s conservative base, his staff’s involvement in Bridgegate —even his warmth toward President Barack Obama in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy in 2012.
“People like a fighter, they hate a bully,” said Florida-based Republican strategist Rick Wilson, who has long been critical of Christie’s campaign effort. “His moment has probably past.”
Of course, one can rise in a volatile political environment as quickly as they plummeted, and the debate stage could be an opportunity for Christie to regain his footing.
“He’s fast on his feet,” Ingle said of Christie’s debate style. “Faster than some people will be in that debate. He rolled with the punches.”