Barely three months in, 2015 has already been a very rough year for Chris Christie, a potential 2016 presidential candidate. On February 2, the New York Times published a report of Christie’s luxurious travels on the credit cards of friends like Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and Sheldon Adelson (at the time, the casino magnate was fighting an online gambling bill in the New Jersey legislature). That same day, Christie told reporters in the U.K. that parents should have “some measure of choice” over vaccinating their children, which he was forced to walk back that afternoon. Just days later, New Jersey’s U.S. attorney launched a criminal investigation into Christie and members of his administration in response to allegations that the then-attorney general dismissed indictments against the governor’s political allies.
But 2015 is also shaping up to be a very rough year for Chris Christie, the New Jersey governor. This week, Christie’s in-state approval rating dipped to 35 percent, the lowest in his five-year governorship, according to a PublicMind poll conducted by Fairleigh Dickinson University. “There’s a perception that he’s no longer governing,” Krista Jenkins, a political science professor who runs the poll, said. “He’s campaigning.” This comes on the heels of a January poll that asked voters to rate Christie’s five years on a set of eight metrics, like the how the state’s transportation system, quality of life, and ethics and honesty have fared. On all eight metrics but the environment, more voters said that the state had become worse under Christie than better.
Meanwhile, New Jersey beat out only Alaska and Mississippi with the third-worst job growth rate in the country in 2014. Under Christie, since 2010, New Jersey’s credit rating has been adjusted downward eight times by three different rating agencies. Public pensions have been cut, but the pension liability is still about $83 billion underfunded and one of the worst in the country. (The estimated liability jumped from $37 to $83 billion at the end of last year when the state adjusted its math to new accounting rules.) The transportation trust fund, which bankrolls infrastructure repairs for the state, is slated to run out of money in June. “His poll ratings are dropping like an anchor because it’s so transparent that he’s exchanging the well-being of New Jersey for his presidential ambitions,” Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers, told me. There might be no place he is less welcome than his own home state. No matter the scorn the national media has heaped upon Christie in recent months, the disaffection of his own constituents might be the Christie campaign’s biggest vulnerability.
Last week, in a budget address on the floor of the state legislature, Christie outlined his plan to solve the state’s pension crisis. The address was short on the typically wonky details and hard numbers of budget addresses. He described his solution—to restructure public pensions to more closely resemble private pension plans, and require the state to make periodic payments to the pension fund—as a “national model” that showed “true leadership.” He claimed that the commission he tasked with solving the pension crisis reached “an unprecedented accord” with the New Jersey Education Association, one of the most influential public unions in the state.
That sounded familiar: In 2011, Christie had also unveiled a “national model” to solve the pension crisis, forging a bipartisan deal that made national headlines; public workers would pay more for their pension and health benefits and, in exchange, Christie would make successively larger annual payments to the pension fund. But by 2014, Christie announced he would slash those promised payments in order to plug other holes in the budget, reneging on his side of the deal. “The plan was overly reliant on state revenues increasing, but that didn’t happen,” Marc Pfeiffer, assistant director of the Bloustein Local Government Research Center at Rutgers, told me. “He made some very important reforms, but it didn’t solve the problem, despite the fact that he advertised it would.” Public unions sued Christie for violating the reform, and on the eve of his budget address this year, just as Christie prepared to announce his new overhaul, a state judge found that the governor’s decision not to make good on his 2011 reform was unconstitutional. “In the eyes of the public employee unions, he’s lost all legitimacy,” Brigid Harrison, Montclair State professor and political analyst, told me. After Christie’s speech, the NJEA released a statement saying that he had “overstated the nature of the understanding,” and they had not reached a deal as the governor claimed.
Political analysts are unconvinced Christie’s plan is anything but superficial, since negotiating and enacting deep reform would be politically expensive. “To tackle this huge mess in a real way would probably be career-ending for a politician like Christie with national ambitions,” Harrison said. “It would mean significant budget cuts and a drastic restructuring of the state employees’ pensions and benefits.” Newspaper editorials across New Jersey also accused the governor of punting on the issue of the transportation trust fund, which he left out of the budget address. A widely discussed solution to the fund's solvency, raising the gas tax, would make Christie vulnerable to criticism from conservative Republicans on the campaign trail.
Of course, New Jersey’s budget crisis isn't entirely Chris Christie's fault. States and towns across the country are grappling with desperately underfunded pension liabilities created over decades of poor governance. Governors in the 1980s and 1990s looking to secure loyalties from unions—especially in states like New Jersey, where unions still wield power—would give public workers sweet pension deals without saving the money to fund them. In 2010, the same year Christie took office, the unfunded pension liability was already hovering around $54 billion.
Nonetheless, Christie has over-promised and under-delivered solutions to New Jersey’s deepening financial problems. While the national press has focused Christie's jet-setting and flubs, it's his failure to address his own state’s economic languor that makes him especially vulnerable in a GOP primary. His opponents would be able to bludgeon him with a range of depressing economic indicators for New Jersey. “The consistent thing that voters care about now in the wake of the recession is a politician’s ability to handle the economy,” Harrison told me. “People don’t really care about Jerry Jones’s airplane or Bridgegate, but they do care about jobs.” And in the state that Christie has stewarded for the past five years, that’s exactly what he’s failed to deliver.