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The Significance of Chris Christie's Win

The Significance of Chris Christie's Win

By Sean Trende - November 5, 2013

It's a bit surprising how blase much of the media seems to be about New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's likely win in Tuesday's election. While it is somewhat natural that attention would drift instead toward the Virginia governor’s race, given where the D.C. press tends to reside and the contest’s relative closeness, the magnitude of Christie’s expected victory really is a big deal. A lot of analysts, including this one from time to time, have overlooked its potential significance.

To put this in perspective, look at the chart at the bottom of the page. It lists the performance, excluding third parties, of every Republican to run statewide in New Jersey from 1945 to 2013, comprising 58 races.

If Christie matches his current numbers in the RCP Average, he would have the fourth-best showing of any Republican in the state in the post-World War II era. Only Sen. Clifford Case in his 1972 re-election, Dwight Eisenhower in the 1956 presidential re-election, and Gov. Tom Kean Sr. in his 1985 re-election put up better numbers.

Three factors make this even more impressive. First, the state’s demographics have pushed it in a more Democratic direction over the past 50 years, as more Hispanics and African-Americans have moved there. The Garden State is also, however, an example of the limitations of the “demographics” argument: It was filled with minorities 50 years ago, but those groups were Irish, Italians, and central Europeans. Today we just call them “whites.” Republicans fared poorly in the state 40 years ago as well, so perhaps minorities haven’t made New Jersey more difficult for the GOP; we’ve just switched our definition of minorities.

Second, Christie is doing this in what seems to be a different environment for Republicans. Eisenhower was one of the most respected men in America in 1956; in 1972 Nixon was cruising to a huge win; and 1985 was the zenith of “morning in America.” These were very favorable times to be a Republican running for office. Today, the environment is much more ambiguous for Republicans (the magnitude of Christie’s likely win gives some evidence that the environment isn’t as radioactive for Republicans overall as many analysts suggest).

But third, and probably more importantly, these three Republicans were pretty moderate, at least publicly. Case, in particular, made today’s “Republicans in Name Only” look like Jesse Helms; he lost to something of an original Tea Party challenge in 1978. (Incidentally, the worst showing in the list, Charles Sandman, was also something of a proto-Tea Party candidate who defeated a liberal Republican governor in the primary before going down to defeat, although he was also weighted down by Nixon’s Saturday Night Massacre shortly before the election.)

I’ve mentioned this before, but Chris Christie is easily the most conservative politician elected to statewide office in New Jersey in the past 60 years, and possibly longer (I don’t know much about the politics of Gov. Alfred Driscoll). In fact, New York Sen. Al D’Amato and Rhode Island Gov. Don Carcieri are the only two successful GOP politicians from states north or east of Pennsylvania that I can think of who have approached his level of conservatism in recent memory (New Hampshire, always the political black sheep of the Northeast, gets asterisked here).

The normal Republican blueprint in the Northeast is to run as a center-right candidate on fiscal matters and center-left -- if not left -- on social issues (remember, Christine Todd Whitman opposed a ban on partial-birth abortions). On fiscal matters, Christie has been pretty hawkish, taking on the state’s teachers’ unions, overseeing cuts in spending and lowering taxes. Even on social issues, he has been fairly conservative, especially by Northeastern standards -- he’s pro-life, against gay marriage (though he does support civil unions), and he even cut state funding for Planned Parenthood. This is an unusually conservative overall profile for a successful Republican politician in the region, much less for one of the most successful Republican politicians there in a generation.

Of course, there’s no guarantee that Christie will match the margin that the RCP Average projects as of today. He’s had something of a ceiling at 59 percent in the surveys, with only pollsters Quinnipiac and Richard Stockton showing him above 60 percent (although the most recent Rutgers-Eagleton poll also shows him clearing that mark.) Buono’s numbers have steadily inched upward, indicating that she is receiving the lion’s share of the undecideds. This is unsurprising, given that these undecideds are almost certainly regular Democratic voters (given the overall tilt of the state, Christie has surely secured almost all of the state’s Republican and Republican-leaning Independents).

But even if Christie were to come up short of the 60 percent mark and win by 18 points, he’d still have the ninth best showing for a Republican in the past 58 races. You’d also have to add a few points to his total since New Jersey has generous ballot access laws. Since third parties will probably do well, he would get another point or two when we convert to a “two-party” vote share. But once again, when you compare this year to those years where Republicans have won by more than 18 points -- 1946, 1956, 1966, 1969, 1972, 1984 and 1985 -- you see what appears to be a much more fluid environment for them today than in those unambiguously good GOP years.

Christie’s win may or may not be transferrable to the national stage. But it is impressive, nevertheless. 

Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at strende@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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