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The Effect of Bridgegate on Chris Christie's Political Brand

Christopher Johnson, CEO of Whitehorn Group, Shares His Opinion on How Christie Can Retain His Hopes for the Whitehouse in 2016

NEW YORK, NY--(Marketwired - January 20, 2014) - Chris Christie has always portrayed an image of a straight shooting-politician who is never afraid to say what is in his mind. He often shouts down hecklers in political rallies, with critics branding him a political bully. However, his willingness to cross the political divide for the sake of regular people has earned him praise from both Democrats and Republicans more than a few times. Generally, he has avoided petty politics that only serve an idea and that do not create realistic solutions. Christopher Johnson points out, "With Christie, what you see is mostly what you get. When Hurricane Sandy devastated the lives of many Americans in New Jersey he courageously ignored the politics of the day to help the victims -- and embraced President Obama's support to the consternation of his party."

Like it or not, Chris Christie's inimitable political brand is well known in New Jersey and the New York metro. Johnson says, "However the bridge-closing scandal, now popularly known as Bridgegate, could potentially destroy Chris Christie's political brand." Last fall, multiple access lanes of an onramp to the George Washington Bridge plaza in the town of Fort Lee, N.J., were closed for four long days. As a result major traffic jams formed that slowed down emergency workers and children beginning the school year, not to mention the Jewish New Year. Even more egregious, the traffic continued on 9/11, even though the GW Bridge is a major terrorist target. After Chris Christie and his supporters vehemently denied they had anything to do with it, a group of Democratic state legislators began an investigation on why the lanes were closed. Just recently these legislators released internal emails that showed that Christie's aides intentionally created the traffic jams as retribution against the Mayor of Fort Lee for not endorsing Christie for re-election. Johnson explains, "Though Christie hasn't been directly linked to the scandal yet, it may still damage his political brand and give his opponents a new line of attack in future elections." 

Johnson says, "Chris Christie's brand, which was mostly created by the media, has been a forthright leader who shoots from the hip and works across political divides. Not always well liked in this land of partisan politics, but impossible to ignore." Worse yet, this scandal makes him look more like a political Pit-bull who doesn't tolerate people who disagree with him. Not good. The media has always described his politics as fresh, different, compassionate and passionate. Now the media has a tough task ahead to reconcile the caricature they've built of the Governor with these shocking revelations about his governance -- and it is just getting started.

So far three people in the Christie administration have lost their jobs because of this scandal and the U.S Attorney General is investigating whether any Federal laws were broken. Though the Governor took responsibility for the traffic jams, his adamant denial that he was not aware of this creates political risk for him. This is because of the ongoing investigation on the issue that may ultimately link him with the scandals. But no one scandal ever sinks an unwavering candidate. Take Bill Clinton who went on to serve for two terms even after the Gennifer Flowers scandal in 1992. However, unlike Clinton, Christie has a penchant for publicly embarrassing people to make his point. Also, not good. Both Democrats and Republicans said that the Governor's 2016 Presidential prospects could be severely undermined, if not crippled, should new evidence emerge that contradicts these denials. Former New Jersey Governor, Tom Kean, noted that unless something new develops Christie would survive. But Kean also added that if other incidents similar to this emerge, it would be a big problem. David Axelrod, a top adviser to President Barack Obama's campaigns, also asserted on his own Twitter feed that the Governor might live to fight another day if other scandals that implicate him don't emerge.

Johnson elaborates, "Christie knows just how much damage this scandal can inflict on his political brand and that is probably why he has repeatedly apologized and has stated that he values bipartisanship and compromise. He also added that the scandal was an exception, not the rule for what has happened over the last four years in his administration. It makes sense for him to do this because Bridgegate has created a national impression that he is a political bulldozer who takes no prisoners." Johnson cautions, "Christies' brand as a straight talking, trustworthy leader has been transformed into political persecutor. Christie must handle this situation with finesse and transparency to strengthen the positive aspects of his behavior or else his brand will be forever weakened -- and any chance of a Republican nod for the Whitehouse in 2016."

True to his brand, the Governor did admit that at the end of the day he is responsible for what happens under his watch. Most leaders in both the private sector and the public sector are often accused of hiding and covering up the truth instead of speaking clearly and openly about their actions. By also apologizing personally to the Mayor and the people of Fort Lee, Christie has put his finger in the dyke and modeled the kind of behavior we should expect in our leaders.

According to the latest polls this approach seems to be working. The NBC News/Marist poll revealed that since the news broke over a week ago, one-third of voters haven't changed their minds about Christie. However, 16% of Americans liked him less. Not great, but also not the worst. The poll also showed that Christie remains the marginal 2016 Presidential frontrunner, two years before any primary votes are cast. If these numbers hold up he may just still have a shot at the Presidency. Johnson says, "Presidential potential, yes, maybe -- whether you agree with his politics or not. But, right now this is a big maybe -- because he must solidify and expand upon the qualities of his brand that could help revive the GOP and transform the party's message." Can this be truly be accomplished? This is hard to say at the moment unless Christie can perform well under the increasingly intense legal and public scrutiny started by Bridgegate -- which now includes accusations of strong-arm tactics from several New Jersey Mayors. Just yesterday, Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer came forward publicly to say that Christie himself threatened the withholding of significant Sandy recovery funds that her city deserved unless she backed a redevelopment plan he favored. Now that Christie is exposed, issues like this are likely to continue.

Johnson concludes, "Even under fire, the resulting attention which started from Bridgegate may just give Christie the national platform he needs for a broad repositioning of the Christie political brand itself. Right now this is mostly up to Christie himself and his ability to employ smart and effective brand management practices. There's still time, just not a lot." In addition to the emerging accusations and where all of this will ultimately lead, there is also the open issue of the conservative Republican favorites such as Scott Walker, Bobby Jindal and Marco Rubio or even Jeb Bush if he decides to run. The 2016 election is two years away so just about anything can happen that can either deliver his hopes for the Whitehouse, or forever scuttle his plans. 

About Christopher Johnson

Christopher Johnson is CEO of branding firm Whitehorn Group. Mr. Johnson is a highly regarded authority on creating political, celebrity and consumer brands, like Infiniti Motor Company and JetBlue Airways. He attended Carnegie Mellon University where he won the Tholenheimer Award and McCurdy Prize.

About Whitehorn Group

Whitehorn is a premier brand strategy firm. They create what's NEW and NEXT through global branding, design, product innovation, political and celebrity brands, business strategy, global marketing and distribution.

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