The 2016 election may seem like a long ways away, but it’s now that the potential candidates must begin to shape the archetype they intend on presenting to the country. As Jeffrey Alexander explains in his book, The Performance of Politics, this archetype, whether it be the people’s man or the war hero, the straightforward politician or the intellectual, is necessary so that the candidate can align him or herself with the “binary language of democratic communication” (1). It’s a point of reference for the audience that rises above bland policy. The politician that most successfully aligns with a binary broad enough to be relatable but distinct enough to be memorable becomes “the hero.” Alexander describes the modern political hero as very similar to those of folklore, explaining that they “rise above normal political life.” The potential candidate that seems to be on the quickest path to defining his hero is New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.
From his public support of Obama after Hurricane Sandy to his intraparty arguments with Senator Rand Paul, Christie often makes waves in DC and political news. He flouts a tough, honest character that is able to work with both parties (2). Christie’s brand of heroism is so well formed that news organizations use it as their own reference point during analysis, as the Washington Post described his “speak-truth-to-power persona” in a recent article discussing his spat with Paul (3).
However, Christie does not shy away from this attention, in fact, he feeds it. He has been on shows like Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, the Late Show with David Letterman, and perhaps most notoriously, Saturday Night Live where he joked about his brash personality and perennially worn fleece. Yet, it’s important to remember during this discussion one of Alexander’s key points, “Once a political figure’s hero character is formed, it is history that decides whether it will fit with that particular time” (1).
So, is 2016 the right time in history for Christie’s hero?
In order to judge this, this blog post will look at the two main components of Christie’s hero that are most defined: the bipartisan tough guy and the celebrity.
BIPARTISAN TOUGH GUY
Both USA Today (4) and the Pew Research Center (5) reported a staggering growth of voters who defined themselves as “independent” in 2011. The USA Today article stated, “The trend is acute in states that are key to next year’s presidential race. In the eight swing states that register voters by party, Democrats’ registration is down by 800,000 and Republicans’ by 350,000. Independents have gained 325,000.” And while Obama garnered the largest portion of independents in 2008, Romney actually won the independent voters in 8 of the 9 swing states in 2012, the odd man out being North Carolina (6). Although this was not enough for Romney to win the election, it showed that this gaggle of voters are open to a moderate Republican candidate. With Christie’s success as a Republican governor in an overwhelmingly liberal state along with his willingness to stand up to his own party, the governor is garnering support from a voting bloc that seems to be crucial in today’s political climate (7).
Alexander discusses the implications of Obama’s celebrity status on his campaign in 2008, most of which were negative (1). However, Christie has embraced his own celebrity, stating that the media attention is just good publicity for New Jersey. The governor has about 400,000 Twitter followers and notable celebrity supporters, with Director Steven Spielberg including Christie on a list of his personal heroes (8).
McCain was in large part successful in his celebrity crusade against Obama in 2008 with Obama narrowly escaping his jabs, but that could be the perfect setup for Christie. The American people have heard all the criticism and the rhetoric, and have the potential to be jaded by the tactic. Instead, his celebrity can be used to focus on simply creating a bigger hype, and thus mobilizing all of the potential independent or swing voters. As The Daily Beast puts it, “running against a celebrity may be more difficult today than at any time in recent American history” (9).
Christie’s persona of bipartisanship and celebrity status akin to Obama brings about the question of whether or not he is conservative enough to win the primary. Has he gone too down the middle to fit into Alexander’s binary? The fact that this question even comes up shows that Christie has been successful in creating a larger-than-self hero. Christie actually aligns with many decisively Republican viewpoints, such as pro-life and anti same-sex marriage. However, polls conducted in April and June among New Jersey voters shows that not only do only 31% of voters oppose same-sex marriage, but 25% of voters didn’t even know that Christie was one of those 31%. “The problem may be that, blinded by Christie’s celebrity and his reputation as a moderate, many voters don’t actually know what he believes“ (9). His “independent’s hero” persona does not necessarily come from his specific policy views, but more likely the image he has created for himself in the media. And it’s this ability reach a wide array of voters at one time that makes 2016 an apt time in history for Christie to be the hero the Republican Party needs.
(1) Alexander, Jeffrey C. The Performance of Politics. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.
(2) “Breitbart.com.” Breitbart News Network. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Sept. 2013.
(3) Cillizza, Chris, and Sean Sullivan. “What the Chris Christie vs. Rand Paul Feud Taught Us.” The Washington Post. N.p., 1 Aug. 2013. Web. 20 Sept. 2013.
(4) “USA TODAY.” USATODAY.COM. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Sept. 2013.
(5) “Number of Independents Continues to Grow.” Pew Research Center RSS. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Sept. 2013.
(6) Flock, Elizabeth. “INFOGRAPHIC: Obama Lost Independent Vote In Almost Every Swing State.” US News. U.S.News & World Report, 13 Nov. 2012. Web. 20 Sept. 2013.
(7) “PolicyMic.” PolicyMic. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Sept. 2013.
(8) McDevitt, Caitlin. “Spielberg Calls Christie ‘My Hero'” POLITICO. N.p., 19 Dec. 2012. Web. 20 Sept. 2013.
(9) Van Zuylen-Wood, Simon. “Barbara Buono, The Ultimate Underdog.” The Daily Beast. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Sept. 2013.