Chris Christie’s reelection as Governor of New Jersey was not quite the landslide that Bill de Blasio put together in becoming Mayor of New York, but it was pretty impressive. A conservative in most regards, Christie won reelection in a pretty leftish (by American standards) state. Many of the chatterati have taken this as a sign that he is a force to be reckoned with in the Republican Party. While it is true that he is among the first-string players in the GOP, his victory is not the kind of thing that will work outside his home state.
Mr. Christie won reelection because of two very important factors. First, he played the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy exceedingly well. Second, New Jersey elects its governor in off-year elections. Neither of these factors can be replicated in a presidential race, and for that reason, Mr. Christie is not going to be the Republican nominee for president in 2016 (although, vice president is a genuine possibility).
When you talk to voters in New Jersey, it’s clear that Christie is respected for his efforts after last year’s hurricane. When your town has been knocked flat on its backside, seeing the governor in the flesh does matter. When asked about his policies and programs, most voters couldn’t really tell you much about him. But they like the fact that he clearly cares about New Jersey and worked himself silly trying to get the place back on its feet. Where the hard right have criticized him for hanging out with President Obama while the Garden State was just coming to grips with what happened there, most voters in New Jersey took the view that he was supposed to do that. He did his job, and for that, he won accolades.
The trouble is that people in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada (the first states in the nominating process) don’t particularly care about New Jersey. That isn’t to say that people are callous or lack compassion. Instead, the emotional attachment that New Jersey voters have developed due to the shared disaster cannot exist elsewhere. Christie can point to his work in fixing New Jersey, and folks in Des Moines might understand, but they aren’t going to feel about it the way people in Asbury Park and Tom’s River do. And in elections, emotion counts — as much as I’d like everything to be about policy, it isn’t.
The other factor that worked in Christie’s favor, which worked four years ago, is that New Jersey votes for governor the year after the presidential election. That neutralizes some of the passion that mobilizes the marginally interested. Let’s be honest, having a presidential contest brings out people who otherwise wouldn’t vote, and based on the polling, those people lean to the Democrats. With Barack Obama at the top of the ticket, Christie would have been operating in a much different electoral environment.
And this fact formed the basic rationale for Christie setting the special U.S. Senate election that Cory Booker won in October. Logically, it should have been held the same day as the regularly scheduled election, but Christie knew that would bring out extra Democratic votes because, well, Booker can draw crowds. In a low-turnout election, and that’s what you get relatively speaking in off-year balloting, the GOP has a better shot in New Jersey. If he chooses to run for president, and if he wins the nomination, he will not be able to avoid enthusiasm of Democrats.
There is a path to the White House for Chris Christie, and it starts with this re-election. He won’t win the nomination in 2016 because the GOP is going to run a hard right candidate one more time (and lose). But imagine a Rick Santorum or Rand Paul at the top of the ticket. What better way to show balance than picking Christie? And when that ticket goes down to defeat, Christie is the front-runner in 2020. And by then, the country might just be sick of Hillary Clinton in the White House.
[ Photo by Flickr user bobjagendorf ]