As soon as news leaked that Chris Christie was going to say (again) that he wasn’t running for president, the press immediately began beating itself up for paying any attention to the drama in New Jersey. Or, as Salon’s Steve Kornacki put it: “[insert something that notes Christie’s many previous denials and chides the media for being ridiculous here].” That’s an easy criticism to make—and it’s no doubt true, given all the various important happenings around the globe, that the press over-covers such events—but within the context of the 2012 presidential election, the press was quite right to pay attention to Christie’s brief campaign and its demise.

The reason for this is simple: Chris Christie ran for president this fall. Not considered, not thought about it. He ran for president, and he lost. Now, he didn’t run a full-fledged campaign, like the one that Tim Pawlenty had, or even a mostly-fledged effort like Haley Barbour’s, but it was a campaign for the White House all right. After all, by his own admission on Tuesday—when he wasn’t talking about how much he loved New Jersey—Christie had been spending the last few weeks gauging his support and “listening” to those who wanted him in the contest. In the context of the “invisible” primary, that’s running for president!

Remember, we’re still in the pre-voting stage of the contest, in which candidates compete for the support of various party actors—campaign professionals, formal party officials, politicians, activists, members of party-aligned interest groups, and the partisan media. Sometimes that competition is out in the open, but a lot of it takes place fairly quietly; we call it “invisible” for a reason. And by all accounts, Christie participated in that part of the process, at least for long enough to decide that his chances of winning the nomination weren’t high enough to meet whatever his threshold was for continuing.

Moreover, even if Christie was an improbable nominee, he was probably at least as likely to win the nomination as any of the candidates other than frontrunners Mitt Romney and Rick Perry. His campaign certainly deserved as much attention as those of Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, or even Ron Paul, none of whom has any plausible path to victory. And on top of that, Christie’s decision to pass may have provided useful evidence about the current Republican Party. From the various reports about his brief campaign, and from some of the visible cheerleading, we can detect who supported him, and we now have evidence that those supporters may have only very limited influence within the party as whole; presumably when Christie went beyond the faction pushing him to run, he found either indifference or actual hostility among other party actors.

To be sure, what we’ve learned only hints at some of what is actually happening during the invisible primary. And yet this stage of the campaign—in which party actors wrangle—is clearly quite critical. Reporters are right, in other words, to make as much of what’s happening now as visible as they can, whether it’s through campaign finance reports, surveys of party actors in early states, coverage of endorsements, or narratives about failed campaigns. Those last ones furnish terrific, if probably difficult to dig out, evidence; after all, studying candidates who looked okay on paper but were quickly chased out of the race can tell us not only what party actors are looking for, but how influence works within a political party. Which groups have virtual veto power if their issues are violated? Which are good at making noise, but not at getting anyone to listen? The Christie case, if Josh Marshall is correct about the “Murdoch primary,” raises some other fascinating questions: Does Fox News take sides within the GOP? Or does it act on the biases that all TV networks tend to have, in which case their motive behind pushing Christie may simply have been to keep the reality show aspects of the nomination process alive?

Neither reporters nor political scientists know the answers to many of these questions. We need more evidence. The Christie campaign, short-lived though it might have been, was a good way to get at it. And that, plus the small but real chance that he could have been a significant presence in the nomination battle, made his campaign well worth covering.

Jonathan Bernstein blogs at A Plain Blog About Politics.