With the third Republican presidential candidates’ debate with its more stringent benchmarks to qualify less than three weeks off (Nov. 8 in Miami), former Gov. Chris Christie shares space “on the bubble” and their participation is in jeopardy.
The Republican National Committee requirements to stand at the podium are achieving at least four percent support in various state and national polls and at least 70,000 donors.
The most recent Real Clear Politics polling average shows Christie at 2.8 percent — sixth place — barely ahead of South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott at 2 percent. Christie reached five percent in late September but has fluctuated between one and three percent while Scott has never surpassed three percent.
Former vice president Mike Pence is teetering on the edge, holding at 3.8 percent but with a history of moving between three and six percent.
Failing to make the cut, of course, does not translate into an automatic suspension of a candidates’ campaign, but will certainly raise the intensity of pressure on those who fall short to stand down in the interest of winnowing the field and reducing the chances of former President Donald Trump — currently sitting on a lead of 40 to 50 points — gliding to the nomination through a badly fractured field of contenders.
The national Republican establishment has stood by apparently fearful of acting or incapable of agreeing on a strategy to shrink the field. It has since come to the belated conclusion that the only option remaining open to deny Trump a victory is culling the herd by convincing Christie, Scott and potentially Pence to accept the reality that the nomination is hopelessly out of their reach and continuing their campaigns is futile and harmful.
Donors will look elsewhere, reallocating their resources and support to a candidate whose potential is brighter than someone seemingly stuck at two to three percent.
Remaining viable with a leaner staff, a tighter budget for television advertising in the larger state primaries and less cash to finance on the ground organizational activities is highly problematic.
Implementing a field reduction strategy, though — no matter how diplomatically done — will be painful and potentially acrimonious.
Conversations will be as friendly, logical and practical as possible, but exceedingly difficult, nonetheless. Family, close friends and the terminally politically hard-headed will all weigh in with reasoned arguments to soften the blow.
At its most fundamental, choosing to abandon the race is a voluntary decision, dealing with the pressures of political reality and the personal difficulty of conceding failure.
It is politics at its most brutal, but it is also the recognized price to pay for engaging in public life as a vocation.
Christie, who abandoned his effort in 2016 after distant finishes in the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary, gambled on staking his claim as the most vociferous anti-Trump candidate in the field but the strategy largely failed to penetrate or impress a significant segment of the Republican electorate.
He gained ground in New Hampshire, for instance, reaching nine percent and fourth place, well behind Trump’s 45 percent, but his national support remained largely static.
He and others entered the race as decided underdogs but believing they could make a difference, steer the party toward less chaotic and dysfunctional government as that experienced in the four years of Trump.
Should Christie, Scott and Pence fall short of the debate stage and Trump refuse to participate as he’s threatened to do, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy will make their pitch to what in all likelihood will be a relatively small audience.
Haley will be the immediate beneficiary of the smaller field, affording her considerably more time to detail her vision and burnish her credentials as an electable and formidable opponent for a beleaguered and vulnerable incumbent president.
When DeSantis entered the race, he was immediately installed as the front runner but repeated stumbles and missteps sent his support tumbling while Haley was gaining.
Trump, of course, stands astride the Republican Party and has edged closer to inevitability, despite criminal indictments, lawsuits and ongoing trials that would have long ago sunk the prospects of anyone else.
His grip on a significant swath of Republican voters is near unbreakable while Haley, for instance, faces the significant challenge of convincing them his candidacy would be disastrous for the Republican Party.
Christie, Scott and Pence occupy the bubble at the moment, but their situation is not beyond salvaging. Missing a debate will require a high degree of damage control, reassuring their base that all is not lost and that a debate absence is a temporary setback.
Difficult? Absolutely. Impossible? Not entirely.
For anyone curious, the expression “on the bubble” has its origins in, of all things, the Indianapolis 500 auto race to describe drivers who stand within a few miles an hour of qualifying for the race.
It is an appropriate analogy to characterize the candidates debate and politics in general — speed past the competition, use questionable tactics to bump them out of your path, and hope they crash and burn. The similarities are clear.
Carl Golden is a senior contributing analyst with the Willam J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University.