Chris Christie's provincial problem: Can he win outside the Northeast?

A recent poll indicates that Christie's popularity might not extend far beyond his home state

Chris Christie
(Image credit: (AP Photo/Rich Schultz))

If the entire nation were one big New Jersey, Chris Christie would have the 2016 Republican presidential nomination in the bag.

Except there is only one New Jersey and, as a result, Christie's hypothetical path to the nomination will have to wind through far less favorable territory than solely the Garden State. And while it's tempting to extrapolate Christie's blowout re-election last week as a sign of his superior electability and presumed frontrunner status, there are questions about whether the New Jersey governor's broad support will extend beyond his home turf.

In the latest such indicator, an NBC poll out Tuesday found that Christie was the preferred candidate of GOP voters in just one region, the Northeast. There, 57 percent of Republicans said they would support Christie in a GOP primary versus 22 percent who said they would not.

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However, pluralities of Republicans everywhere else said they would prefer a different candidate. Christie trailed a generic "other" GOPer in the Midwest (35/30 percent), the South (29/27 percent) and the West (40/22 percent.)

All told, Republican respondents nationwide are equally split between Christie, anti-Christie, and unsure. Of course, this poll might just illustrate the power of hometown advantage — Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) could be the preferred candidate in the West, for instance — but it does highlight the governor's main problem should he launch a presidential campaign. Though he has significant bipartisan appeal — he won a third of Democrats and two-thirds of Independents in his re-election bid, according to the New York Times' exit polling data — that might not be much of a draw to many conservatives.

Other recent polling bears out that point.

In a recent survey conducted by Quinnipiac, only one-third of self-identified conservatives nationwide had a favorable opinion of Christie, while one-quarter viewed him unfavorably. And while Christie took the top spot in a PPP survey of a theoretical GOP primary earlier this month, he was the top choice among only three percent of "very conservative" respondents. That put him dead last with that demographic, behind the likes of Sens. Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Marco Rubio — as well as some more farfetched candidates like Sarah Palin and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.

Matt Lewis remarked on this problem in The Week way back in February, comparing Christie to Jon Huntsman, the former Utah governor who positioned himself as the electable moderate in 2012 only to fizzle out in remarkable, whimpering fashion. Though Christie had some true conservative bona fides, Lewis wrote, conservative voters still suspected his high popularity back home was more so "directly related to his willingness to throw fellow Republicans under the bus. "

Christie has notably sparred with unions, slashed state spending, and wagged his finger at teachers, all of which should win him support with conservatives. But he's also developed a moderate image, dropping a challenge to gay marriage, endorsing some limited gun control reforms, and suggesting illegal immigrants should be given in-state tuition rates.

Those latter positions, which padded Christie's re-election margin, could become huge liabilities in a Republican primary with its typically more conservative electorate. Fox's Brit Hume noted that problem on Sunday, saying Tea Party types "are not persuaded by electability arguments, and they don't like anybody who they think may turn out to be a moderate."

"In some respects Chris Christie is indeed a moderate," he added, "so he has that to be concerned about."

Plus Christie infamously embraced President Obama following Hurricane Sandy, drawing ire from virtually everyone else in his party in the process. If he does indeed run, you can only imagine what sort of fun his opponents would have with all the pictures of him hugging, high-fiving, and just plain broing out with Obama.

Christie, with his name recognition and enviable fundraising platform, would be a formidable candidate in a general election. Yet the biggest question about his 2016 ambitions may not be whether he can defeat Hillary Clinton or whoever else emerges from the Democratic side, but whether he can first convince his own party's skeptics that he's really one of them.

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