Pundits across the country are in full speculation mode that Chris Christie’s re-election may illuminate the path for Republicans to recapture the White House in 2016. Having been deeply involved in New Jersey elections for the past year, we talked to our colleagues on the ground to get their take on just what the Christie win really means.
Was this the début of the GOP’s “minority outreach” program? Or was this just the latest battle in the civil war between Tea Party activists and establishment Republicans? After evaluating the results of last Tuesday’s election, it’s possible that the answer to all three is yes.
With less than 38% turnout -- a record low for New Jersey Governor races – this campaign was obviously not about “Blue State” voter mobilization. Therefore, the outcome doesn’t have a single driving factor but rather multiple interwoven themes that articulate a much more fluid set of dynamics.
To put this race in context, let’s start at the finish line. Given the enormous vote gap for Chris Christie’s win (60% - 38%), this race was clearly driven by his Super Storm Sandy response. Christie used public funds to remind voters of this “911” moment the entire campaign, giving him impenetrable political armor that prevented Senator Barbara Buono from exposing his biggest weaknesses – policies not personality.
For example, while exit polls report that “the economy” mattered most to voters and nearly half (49%) considered this in deciding how they would cast their ballot, 59% said the condition of New Jersey’s economy is “not so good / poor.” In fact, New Jersey’s unemployment rate of 8.5% has outpaced the national average since Christie took office.
It’s important to note that Christie’s personal popularity is sharply at odds with where the majority of New Jersey voters are on the issue. Note that there is a clear contrast between Christie’s conservative posture and the values of his state. For instance, his “Blue State” constituents favored a court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage in New Jersey (60% to 38%) yet he forcefully spoke out against it. This was never a problem for him because there was no progressive entity to hold him accountable including Senator Buono who was out raised $2.7 million to Christie’s $13.2 million. Likewise he was not held accountable for 1) his veto of legislation to raise the minimum-wage, 2) teacher pension cuts, 3) a woman’s right to choose, 4) gun control, and 5) a weak climate control stance.
Giving him a pass on these issues became self-inflected wounds for Democrats and progressives:
- 57% of the New Jersey's women voted for Chris Christie
- 51% of Latinos and 21% of African Americans voted for the Governor, an increase over previous elections
- 49% of those who support same sex marriage voted for Chris Christie
- 46% of union households supported Chris Christie
- 32% of self-identified Democrats voted for Chris Christie
- 31% of self-described liberals supported Chris Christie
There is strong evidence that there would’ve been a different outcome if Democrats truly contested this race. Specifically, a Democrat like Cory Booker -- with resources for a GOTV operation and high name recognition -- would have likely defeated Christie. His candidacy would have impacted down ballot in majority People of Color (POC) cities like Atlantic – that just elected a Republican mayor.
Moving forward, how might this help Christie get through the primaries in 2016? The truth is that Citizen’s United has significantly changed the primary process. Remember in 2012, most political “experts” were scratching their heads trying to figure out when Rick Santorum would suspend his campaign. The answer came after his financial backer stopped paying for airplane tickets to primary states. It’s important to note that he agreed to step down only after delegate rich states were completely out of reach.
With states like California, New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania traditionally holding late primary dates -- and already leaning towards a Christie candidacy -- something tells me that Christie will have plenty of money for airplane tickets to compete through May.
What should progressives start thinking about? A way to win more Voters of Color (VOC) through persuasion versus the splintering that occurred in New Jersey. This could be key — given the fact that “Operation ChristiCrats” may garner a larger pool of the Democrats’ traditional base. We may have to consolidate and expand the base including youth, white women, people of color and progressives. Looking at this from a demographic perspective using New Jersey’s recent Governor’s race where the electorate was 15% African American, 9% Latino, and 3% Asian, voters of Color can have tremendous impact as long as they receive the “right message from a trusted messenger.”
Of course, Christie’s performance doesn’t guarantee that he will easily walk into the White House. Nevertheless, his electoral success in a “Blue State” details a path for Republicans that may become a game changer. This also indicates that, contrary to popular thought, they are working to fix their cultural blind spots. Note that it’s no accident New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez joined Christie for a pre-Election Day tour or Senator Buono was hit with a Shaq attack so close to election day.
The truth is that no one knows what will happen in the next two years, but it’s well documented that candidates like Governor Christie have the ability to create openings for their team by breaking through voting blocks and separating voters from their interests. If we neglect to invest in institutions that hold those blocks together we could be witnessing the next big electoral change.