That’s according to new polling and political strategists from both parties who gathered in Boston on Thursday to examine New Hampshire’s next presidential primary. With campaigning in the first-in-the-nation-primary state expected to begin in earnest a year from now, early polls show an evolving political landscape with major questions for a Republican Party with no clear front-runner and a leading Democrat with nowhere to go but down.
“We’re having a food fight in the Republican Party that it looks like the Democrats may be able to avoid,” said New Hampshire-based Republican strategist Patrick Griffin, who was among those invited to discuss the 2016 presidential contest at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.
Early polling highlights a crowded field of prospective Republican contenders - each at various stages of determining his or her 2016 plans. Potential candidates such as Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan have already courted New Hampshire voters in recent months or are scheduled to do so. Christie was among the national GOP’s most popular figures until a political-retribution scandal erupted in New Jersey earlier in the month.
Veteran Democratic strategist Steve McMahon said the incident has fundamentally redefined Christie’s reputation as a tough-talking Republican who rises above politics. “Basically he’s a thug,” McMahon said of Christie.
The Republicans in attendance did little to defend the Republican governor.
“Bully is a word that Chris Christie’s folks have to be concerned about,” said Republican strategist Alex Castellanos, a veteran of presidential politics. “Republican contributors and others have hit the pause button.”
State and federal authorities office are investigating claims that the Christie aides created traffic jams last fall to punish a political adversary. Another mayor has alleged that Christie’s administration threatened to withhold Superstorm Sandy recovery funds unless a redevelopment project was approved.
The Christie administration vigorously denies the claim.
Thirty-two percent of prospective New Hampshire Republican primary voters are less likely to support Christie because of the New Jersey controversy, according to a University of New Hampshire poll conducted between Jan. 21 and Jan. 26. His overall support among likely GOP primary voters has been cut in half since last summer.
UNH pollster Andy Smith says that the numbers are merely a snapshot in time likely to change. With the field far from set, very few voters have made up their minds.
But the early dynamic suggests a less contentious primary process for Democrats in 2016.
“Typically, it’s the Democrats that are kind of a mess,” Smith said. “This time, it’s just the opposite.”
Clinton is dominating on the Democratic side.
Three-quarters of likely New Hampshire Democrats would vote for her if the primary were held today, according to the UNH poll. Vice President Joe Biden finishes second with 10 percent. A Washington Post-ABC poll released Thursday gives Clinton a similar lead nationally, making her the biggest front-runner for a Democratic presidential nomination in the history of the poll.