Chris Christie: 2016 Frontrunner?

A week has passed since Chris Christie’s historic win in the 2013 New Jersey governor’s race. The election, wherein the governor got more votes than his opponent by more than a 22-point margin, has led many in the Republican Party to all but declare Christie the 2016 GOP presidential nominee. Respected conservative pundit Dr. Charles Krauthammer, in an interview with Steve Malzberg, said “He is, by far, far and away, the frontrunner right now…. There are areas where conservatives will disagree with him but if you find a guy who wins by 22 points in a deeply, deeply Democratic state, you’ve got to take a look at him because whatever you think of moderation amongst some conservatives, it sure beats having a Democrat, an Obama, or a Clinton in the White House.”

While the win is something that is definitely worth celebrating, this sort of gushing over Christie has led to pushback from Christie’s detractors in the Republican Party. Most of the disapproval of the New Jersey governor’s ascension has come from those who self-identify as members of the “tea party.” The criticisms that are being leveled at him from that wing are, in a word, ludicrous.

For example, The New York Times ran a story this week (“Conservative Republicans Recoil at the Notion That Christie is the Party’s Savior”) that quotes an active tea party member as saying, of Governor Christie, that “He’s no more conservative than Harry Reid.” The notion that Christie is in any way comparable to Democratic Senate Majority Leader Reid doesn’t pass the laugh test. But when detractors have an emotional reaction every time they hear his name, because they (wrongly) blame the 2012 election on him, that’s the kind of argument you can expect to hear.

Other criticism has come from Christie’s political rivals within the GOP. Marco Rubio, who is widely assumed to be one of the governor’s rivals for the 2016 nomination, sought to downplay the impact of his win by making it more local. “Clearly (Christie) was able to speak to the hopes and aspirations of people within New Jersey. That’s important. We want to win everywhere and Governor Christie has certainly shown he has a way of winning … in states like New Jersey… so I congratulate him on that.”

So how big was Christie’s win, really?

At first glance, when you examine the numbers more closely, it doesn’t seem like it was that impressive a victory at all. 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% win. In 2013, Christie got 60.4% of the vote — but only outperformed his 2009 vote total by 77,655 votes. So what made for the big percentage difference? Barbara Buono only got 790,245 votes — almost 300,000 fewer than John Corzine. 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 for the same number of votes for a third-party candidate as were for Daggett in 2009), the governor’s margin of victory would have been 50.4% — 43.8%, a mere three-point improvement 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.”)

But the reality is that although those numbers can give the impression of a less-than-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. This helped his reelection effort by making him draw the weakest opponent, as the stronger ones 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 by how much he would win, not whether he would win.

Putting that all together adds up to a campaign strategy that was about depressing the Democrats’ turnout — in a solidly Democratic 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 reelection campaign will be a welcome sight for Republicans. For all the different things on which people blamed the last two presidential cycle losses, none are as clear as the fact that both John McCain and Mitt Romney ran subpar campaigns. If Christie can duplicate his success in 2016, the nomination, and the presidency, just might be his for the taking.