Call it the Christie blue-state juggernaut.
Thursday is the second day of a forceful 90-stop bus tour for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) – a tour that will take the one-term Republican to each of the state’s 21 counties. All signs are pointing to a candidate determined to run up the score in this solidly Democratic state just days before the Nov. 5 election.
When Governor Christie kicked off the tour Wednesday in his hometown of Livingston, N.J. – about 30 miles outside New York City – his poll numbers hovered around a 30-point lead over his Democratic rival, state Sen. Barbara Buono. Despite being a powerful figure in the state Legislature for 20 years, Senator Buono has struggled to make an impact in the polls.
Christie’s tour – which has more the feel of a victory lap as adoring crowds clamor for photos and even hugs and kisses with their gruff, no-nonsense governor – has been working to attract as many Democrats, independents, and minorities as possible in an effort to boost the margin of his expected victory next Tuesday.
In the latest Quinnipiac poll, Christie leads Buono by a 2-to-1 margin. Moreover, 48 percent of likely New Jersey voters say they would like to see their governor make a run for the White House in 2016. New Jersey hasn’t voted for a Republican for president since 1988, and it hasn’t elected a Republican to the US Senate since 1972.
Yet, given Christie’s efforts and the corresponding high hopes of a campaign believed to be a prelude to a 2016 presidential run, anything less than a landslide might tarnish the Republican as he seeks to convince his party of his presidential bona fides.
“At this point, it is an expectations game – if he fails to meet the enormous expectations, it will make it that much tougher to mount a successful bid for 2016 and perhaps signal that this wing of the party is not as strong as some believe,” e-mails Jeanne Zaino, professor of political science at Iona College in New Rochelle, N.Y.
On Wednesday, Christie’s tour stopped in the town of Linden, where more than half the population of 40,500 is black or Latino. There are only 1,423 registered Republicans compared with 12,191 registered Democrats.
"He's doing a great job," said Mayor Richard Gerbounka, an independent who endorsed Christie Wednesday, according to The Star-Ledger. "He's a great governor. We need him for four more years. He put New Jersey on the national map."
“[Part] of his argument for 2016 is his potential appeal across party, racial and age divides," says Matt Hale, professor of political science and public affairs at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J. "Christie might win the Hispanic vote, people under 25, the independents, women, and maybe even 40% of the African American vote,” he writes in an e-mail.
Christie has been angling for a landslide victory throughout the campaign, using the power of his office to improve his margins.
“He signaled just how critical [a decisive win] is to him when he decided to hold the special election early,” suggests Professor Zaino, referring to Christie’s order to hold an Oct. 16 special election to fill New Jersey’s open US Senate seat, following the death of Democrat Frank Lautenberg. This was the earliest date allowed by law.
It was a shrewd political use of his gubernatorial authority, many say, since it took the rising New Jersey political star and now US Sen. Cory Booker – who won 55 percent of the vote to beat his Republican rival, a tea party favorite – out of the November headlines.
Without a big-name Democrat on the Nov. 5 ballot, Christie has been able to dominate the governor’s race much more easily, observers say.
“He can contrast his [potential] big win to the defeat of Tea Party candidate Steve Lonegan last month in the U.S. Senate race,” Professor Hale says. “The hard right loses by 12 points, the middle right wins by 30ish.”
Awash in campaign cash, the governor has crushed Buono with 16 TV ads this year – including spots featuring Newark native and NBA legend Shaquille O’Neal. By comparison, the state senator has had two television ads. Also, Buono has raised only $2.9 million to Christie’s $12.7 million.
Potential donors for 2016 will be watching for a landslide as well.
“As far as the fund-raisers and big money people are concerned, this is critical because a weak showing – [or] less than expected – will make it that much more difficult for him to make a strong case for himself going into 2016,” according to Zaino.
And yet, given the current angry and motivated base of tea party Republicans, a Northeastern moderate Republican who had been friendly with the despised Democratic president in the aftermath of superstorm Sandy might work against the New Jersey governor.
“But really, it is extraordinary that any Republican can win twice in New Jersey – whatever the margin,” says Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. “Christie's problem is not that Republicans don't think he can win blue states, but rather that he wins them at all, thereby suggesting he is too moderate for a very conservative party.”
Still, a poll of likely GOP voters in the weighty South Carolina presidential primary currently puts Christie in the lead of a crowded field of familiar tea party favorites. Specifically, he drew the support of 19 percent of Republicans in this conservative Southern state, according to a poll released Wednesday by the Conservative Intelligence Briefing blog and conducted by Harper Polling. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz polled second with 17 percent, while Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, and Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan each polled at 12 or 13 percent.
“Republicans can't win the presidency without someone other than white guys voting for them,” says Hale. “Christie is trying to run up his total margin because by doing that he shows he is the Republican who can do that.”