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David Hill: Christie won’t be hurt

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People in politics who should know better — or who may know better but pretend they don’t — act as if events like “Bridgegate” really affect votes. 

There are a whole host of supposedly “bad things” that are vastly overstated when it comes to their electoral relevance. Among the events deserving the “overrated” label are endorsements, be it by newspapers, politicians, associations or membership groups. Similarly overrated are the relevance of “dirty money” contributions and the impact of typical “bad news” stories about politicos in the media.

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I’m not saying that these kinds of events won’t attract media attention, but unless the media stays with it for weeks and months without ceasing, most any story will eventually dissipate. The original “gate” story had that sort of longevity, but the ensuing gates — including Bridgegate — seldom swing open so wide. The gate label is used solely because those wielding it hope to create another long-lasting and political impactful event. Seldom, if ever, does this happen.

There are several perfectly good explanations as to why these bad stories aren’t very influential in the end. 

For one thing, voters believe that events like Bridgegate happen every single day at every single level of government. The only difference is that the events have been exposed. But rational voters won’t punish someone like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, or his administration and party, unless he’s done something truly unusual or extraordinarily terrible. I sometimes have observed that there must be criminal charges, or at the least indictments, for voters to even look hard. And even if the legal system signals that some bad behavior has occurred, there’s no assurance that voters will notice and care — because they think this stuff goes on all the time.

Another explanation for the failure of gate stories to get traction is that voters just doesn’t follow the news that closely. At least, the segment of the electorate that could be open to persuasion doesn’t.

Of course there is a sliver of Americans, mostly living inside the Beltway and state capitals, that do care and follows these stories as if they were a really juicy soap opera, but even their attention makes little difference. Their minds are already made up by partisanship, so there’s no interest in new facts. 

Even those with open minds who pay attention might not be influenced, particularly by stories disparaging Republicans. I think that the public has fairly arrived at the conclusion that most media outlets hate Republicans, so there is some skepticism when it comes to concluding that a Republican like Christie is “guilty, guilt, guilty” based on some media coverage. Unless the coverage is sustained and punctuated by indictments or criminal charges, just move along, nothing to see here.

This, of course, frustrates the operatives leading the charge, and they refuse to believe that the news is not infecting the public with an incurable case of prejudice against the accused. But those who push these stupid stories are just fouling their own nests. It’s a vicious cycle: The notion that a governor plays hard-ball politics becomes so ingrained that all politicians, including Democrats, are viewed with renewed skepticism. The next story will be even harder to exploit. And the public that pols want to influence on other, more positive sells becomes even more distant and uninterested.

These observations are not meant to excuse Christie or his colleagues that may have, in fact, been guilty of bad behavior. But to believe that this ends Christie’s presidential hopes is ridiculous. If anything, some Republicans who might have once been skeptical of a Christie nomination may now be interested because they want someone campaigning for the presidency and living in the White House who can and will deal with Democrats in a heavy-handed way. Be careful of what you wish for.

Hill is a pollster who has worked for Republican campaigns and causes since 1984.

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