Is Chris Christie presidential material?

The New Jersey governor's pivot to 2016 starts now

As New Jersey voters head to the polls for Tuesday's gubernatorial election, the only real question is whether they'll re-elect Gov. Chris Christie (R) by more than a 30-point margin, as some polls have suggested they will.

The significance of Christie's achievement — to win twice in a heavily Democratic state — cannot be understated. And it makes him the hottest asset of the Republican Party, whose woes over the past month suggest it is badly in need of a figure who in 2016 can connect with voters beyond a shrinking conservative base.

But is Christie that candidate? While he has shown an incredible ability to appeal to voters of all stripes in New Jersey, it's yet to be seen whether his shtick as a brash, straight-talking fiscal conservative will play quite so well on the national stage.

At this very early juncture, public opinion polls suggest that Christie does indeed have nationwide bipartisan appeal.

Several polls over the summer found that a majority of adults had a favorable impression of him. A more recent Quinnipiac survey, from late September, found him with a net positive 18-point favorability rating. That was almost as rosy as Hillary Clinton's +20 mark, and way better than the rating Quinnipiac recorded for other potential 2016 GOP candidates Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas).

That's partly why Republicans drooled over Christie in 2012, seeing him as a strong alternative to a primary field so lackluster that a pizza magnate with a pizza-chain-sounding slogan briefly led the race. Not only was Christie more accomplished than some of the other candidates, but was also far more likely to win a general election than, say, Michele Bachmann.

However, Christie's poll numbers could change dramatically as the public becomes better acquainted with him. As the new 2012 tell-all Double Down shows, there is a lot about Christie that most voters don't know about, including some serious-sounding ethics troubles.

Furthermore, much has been made about the governor's less-than-polished political persona. His YouTube page, for example, proudly features a lengthy compilation of him sparring with and belittling people.

Take his bellicose finger-wagging at public employee unions. Supporters say it's just Christie keeping it real and standing up for hardworking taxpayers; detractors think it's rude behavior unbecoming of a leader, nothing less than outright intimidation from a schoolyard bully.

In the latest such incident, Christie ended a weekend rally by lecturing a teacher, saying she and her ilk were the problem with Jersey's schools, not a lack of funding. Had he done so while running for president, says Mother Jones's Kevin Drum, "his presidential aspirations would be over."

"I guarantee you that the American public will very quickly become repelled at the sight of a Jersey loudmouth bullying ordinary citizens who have the temerity to disagree with him," he adds.

Still, it's not as if Christie is some Jersey-specific monster whom only Jersey residents could love. As Business Insider's Josh Barro notes, the pearl-clutching over Christie's behavior belies the fact that Jersey is a lot like other places in the Northeast.

Demographically, New Jersey is basically similar to Massachusetts, but with slightly higher incomes and somewhat more racial diversity. Like New Jersey, Massachusetts has townies. But when Massachusetts politicians run for national office, reporters don't pull out Good Will Hunting and fret that the local pols are "too Massachusetts" to sell nationally. [Business Insider]

Plus, personality "will be almost certainly marginal" come the general election, says The Washington Post's Jonathan Bernstein, because votes there "are driven mainly by party, and secondarily by voters' retrospective evaluation of the incumbent party."

"Everything else: Candidate, campaign, specific issues outside of the party context…it's sloppy to say that they 'don't matter,' but the truth is that they matter only on the margins," he writes.

As for his record, Christie has the credentials that could win him supporters from both sides of the political spectrum. He's gone to war with unions and gutted state spending, while striking a moderate tone on social issues. Most recently, he dropped a legal challenge to gay marriage, in doing so juxtaposing his pragmatism against the intransigence of the GOP's fervent right wing.

And in his most famous turn in the spotlight, Christie showed he could put his constituents over party when he bonded with President Obama during the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy — much to the chagrin of his GOP colleagues.

Indeed, Christie's real test may not be whether he's presidential material, but whether he's presidential nominee material. Will GOP primary voters, who trend conservative, spurn Christie for not fighting harder against gay marriage? Will the party faithful, still sore over Mitt Romney's waffling and lifeless campaign, propel a firebrand like Cruz to the nomination?

The main concern for Christie is that a primary contest pulls him to the right, obliterating all the good will he created with more moderate voters. It could prove to be the GOP's principal concern as well.


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