Chris Christie’s currently leading all other 2016 contenders in the early polling for the Republican presidential nomination. His 22-point reelection victory in a liberal state like New Jersey has led to his coronation as the early frontrunner. The governor’s ability to appeal to non-traditional Republican voters provides fuel to the theory that he can be “the one we have been waiting for”. With the Electoral College map seemingly working against Republicans, Christie looks to break the mold and make the argument that he can turn blue states red.
But how impressive was Christie’s win, really?
At first glance, when you examine the numbers closer, it isn’t as impressive as you might think. Consider this: in 2009 Christie got 1,174,445 votes- compared with John Corzine’s 1,087,731. That was enough for a 48.5 -44.9 percent win. In 2013, Christie got 60.4 percent of the vote- but only outperformed his 2009 vote total by 77,655 votes with a total of 1,252,100.
Add to this equation the fact that during the 2009 race there was a third-party candidate, Independent Chris Daggett, who captured 139,579- or 5.8 percent of the vote. Exit polls from that race indicate that were Daggett not have been in the race, Christie would have gotten 1/3 of his votes, a total of 46,526. That means Christie only outperformed his 2009 showing by 31,129 votes — or 2.5 percent.
So what made for the big percentage difference? Barbara Buono only got 790,245 votes — almost 300,000 less than John Corzine. (To put Buono’s poor performance into perspective, no candidate for Governor in New Jersey got less than her total since 1985, when Peter Shapiro got 578,402 votes and was demolished by Tom Kean Sr.) As a matter of fact, if Christie would have gotten his vote total of 2013, and Buono would have matched Corzine’s performance, (and allowing Buono the 2/3 of Daggett’s voters who would’ve voted for Corzine) the Governor’s margin of victory would have been 51.4 -48.5 percent — a mere 1.2 point improvement over his 2009 victory Again, this assumes that absent Daggett the votes split 2:1 to the democrat candidate in each race. If we were to remove those numbers totally, and calculate the Christie win with Buono matching Corzine’s actual vote total, and allowing for a third party candidate matching Daggett’s totals from 2009, it isn’t that much more impressive. Christie’s win would be 50.4-43.8 percent — a mere three point gain over his 2009 performance.
It is a fair argument to make that had the Democrats set forth a more viable candidate than Buono, and/or backed their candidate more, the race wouldn’t have been so lopsided. (Buono, for her part, alluded to the lack of support in her concession speech when she said “…I took one for the team, the only problem…there was no team.”)
Perhaps the most disturbing number about the Christie win is how voters self-identified politically 4 years after he had been their Governor. The model for a reelection win that was indicative of a candidate’s ability to transform the political landscape would be Ronald Reagan’s 1984 reelection. In 1980, the electorate identified as 17 percent liberal, 46 percent moderate and 28 percent conservative. In 1988, the electorate was 16 percent liberal (-1) 42 percent moderate (-4) and 33 percent conservative (+5). In Christie’s case, however, the electorate in 2009 was 25 percent liberal, 45 percent moderate and 30 percent conservative. In 2013 it was 25 percent liberal (-) 49 percent moderate (+4) and 26 percent conservative (-4).
While Christie has shown the ability to slightly outperform his 2009 with an electorate less conservative, it is quite obvious that this is far from a landscape shifting win it is being sold as being. Part of that shift can be attributed to his (real) alienation of conservatives in his efforts to win over voters from the other political side. (I, for example, did not vote for Christie or for any gubernatorial candidate this year, despite having voted for him in 2013, due to comments he made when announcing he would sign a bill outlawing reparative therapy for minors. I probably would have voted for him, and been an active supporter despite this, had the vote been close.)
But the reality is that although those numbers can give the impression of a less that remarkable Christie win, what is missing from the analysis is why things turned out the way they did. Christie, as he said in his victory speech when thanking his campaign staff, ran a flawless campaign. Central to that campaign was this aura of inevitability he projected. His handling of duper storm Sandy, and his welcoming of President barack Obama before the 2012 election, further fed into that. This helped his reelection effort by making him draw the weakest opponent as the stronger ones (read: Cory Booker, who trailed 53-43 in post Sandy polls) refused to run. It also didn’t allow for his weaker opponent to gain any traction, as the narrative was already set- people wanted to know how much he would win by, not if he would win. Putting that all together adds up to a campaign strategy that was about depressing the Democrats turnout- in a solidly Democrat state, without resorting to the negative and cynical attack ads that usually accompany that sort of strategy. And when your opponent’s campaign can’t raise money or get any positive media coverage due to the way your campaign set up the story of the election, then you deserve credit for your big win, as Christie does.
Does that translate to 2016? To be sure, a GOP nominee who can actually run a campaign as well as Christie ran his gubernatorial reelect campaign will be a welcome sight for Republicans. For all the different things the last two presidential cycle losses get blamed on, none are as clear as the fact that both John McCain and Mitt Romney ran subpar campaigns. If Christie, or any other GOP candidate, can actually manage to run a campaign as good as the one Christie ran in New Jersey, it bodes well.
But Christie’s appeal to New Jersey voters was very much his inevitability (which he won’t have in 2016) and that people came to identify with his as someone they can lean on after Sandy. He also made his number one selling point clear in the open of his victory speech when he said, “You see, what people have never understood about us, is that I didn’t any introduction to all of you. I know you, because I’m one of you.”
And being a “Jersey Guy” doesn’t necessarily translate to a winning campaign strategy in trying to win over the 49 other states.