If New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie decided to jump into the 2012 presidential race—as some Republicans have begged him to—his entrance this late in the game would be almost unprecedented in recent history.
As the primary calendar currently stands, there are 128 days until the first nominating test plays out in the Iowa caucuses. But with Florida vying for a Jan. 31 primary, Iowans could be choosing their nominee as early as Jan. 6, a mere 100 days from today.
“It’s getting harder every day,” said Timothy Hagle, a political science professor at the University of Iowa. ”If he’s going to compete effectively, it’s all going to be very, very fast. You have to come in with a lot of support and a lot of money; otherwise it’s just going to be a flash in the pan.”
Christie is not your run-of-the-mill presidential long-shot. The budget-cutting, straight-talking governor has shot to national prominence since he was elected governor in 2009. His sometimes boisterous talk of cutting spending and reforming entitlements has stoked speculation that he will make a play for the presidency, although he has continuously shot down rumors that he plans to run.
“He may not have the stomach for a presidential campaign and it may hurt him in New Jersey,” said Paul Beck, an associate professor at Ohio State University. “I think that he’s under enormous pressure to get in in 2012, but it’s risky.”
It has been more than 20 years since a presidential contender waited this late to announce his candidacy. During the 1980 campaign then Sen. Ted Kennedy launched his White House bid in November 1979, giving himself 75 days to officially campaign before the Iowa caucuses.
After two months of holiday-season campaigning, Kennedy finished a dismal 28 percentage points behind incumbent Democratic President Jimmy Carter at the first-in-the-nation caucus. The senator abandoned his bid for the White House soon afterward.
“This whole process is a marathon, not a sprint,” Hagle pointed out.
Fast forward a decade and the late-bloomer story takes on a vastly different tone. In the 1992 election, then Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton waited until 129 days before the Iowa caucus to officially jump into the race on Oct. 4, 1991.
Clinton managed to snag the nomination despite his late campaign kick-off, in part because, unlike Christie, the Arkansan had launched his presidential exploratory committee in August. The unofficial bid allowed Clinton to build a support network for 165 days prior to the first caucus.
Also distinct in the 1992 election was the fact that Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin was on the ballot. Because he was a native Iowan, Harkin was expected to win the state from the outset. Consequently, the other candidates did not devote many resources to the first-in-the-nation state, giving Clinton more time to build his support.
“That was a different time and the calendar has moved up since then,” Hagle said. “Iowa didn’t matter as much that year.”
Such was not the story for 2008 presidential candidate Fred Thompson, who kicked off his White House bid on Sept. 5, 2007. Despite having only 111 days to win over Iowa caucus-goers, Thompson shied away from the hand-shaking and diner-visiting necessary to be competitive in the Hawkeye state, Hagle said.
“Thompson didn’t really want to campaign. He didn’t like to do that really grassroots part, at least not as much as much of it as we wanted,” Hagle said, adding that consequently Thompson’s campaign, “just kind of duded out” after his third-place finish at the Iowa caucus.
The biggest challenge this cycle for a late entrant like Christie would be the logistics of setting up campaign offices, recruiting talented and well-connected staff, and building a base of volunteers necessary to have a successful ground campaign in the early primary states.
“Somebody can get in this late — they just have to have name recognition and ability to work,” Hagle said.
With eight GOP hopefuls already in the race, many of the top strategists and experienced campaigners have already been scooped up. Hagle said a possible Christie campaign would probably have to “import” loyal staff from New Jersey or Republican Party operatives from Washington, D.C.
“It would be extremely hard for him to do so at this point,” Hagle said. “But I think a lot of [Republican voters] are uneasy. Not that they are unhappy, but they’re just not sold yet.”
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who announced his candidacy just over a month ago, looked, for a moment, like the candidate the Republican Party could rally around. But after a poor debate performance in which he was attacked for his unpopular positions on in-state tuition for illegal immigrants and a mandatory HPV vaccine, Perry’s popularity has plummeted.
“I think part of the bloom fading for Perry has been a lot of Republicans thinking, ‘This guy just doesn’t have it,’” Beck said. “Now would Christie suffer the same fate? I don’t think so. I don’t think he would fade as dramatically as Perry has.”
Because Christie has been in the national spotlight more than the Texas governor and has dealt with a Democratic legislature in New Jersey, Beck said he could have “much more staying power than Perry has had.”
And with many Republican donors still on the sidelines, Beck said he does not “have any doubts at all at [Christie's] ability to raise lots of money.”
“I think a lot of Republicans are still looking for the one they can get behind for both the nomination and for the general election,” he said.
But while Christie may be that candidate, his window of opportunity is closing.
“He’s got to move pretty fast,” Beck said, adding that if Christie decided to run, he will have to announce “certainly within the month of October.”