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How Chris Christie Got Where He Is

11/26/2013 05:05 pm ET | Updated Jan 26, 2014

Breaking news: A New Quinnipiac poll has Chris Christie leading Hillary Clinton for president in 2016. And coming off his victory in New Jersey earlier this month, many Republicans and some in the media are anxious to see Christie make the run. Christie has pointed to his success in New Jersey as a model for the GOP, but when you scratch the surface, much like Christie's record, the facts don't match the rhetoric. He is smart, comfortable in his own skin and a skilled politician, but let's put his 2013 victory and Chris Christie himself in some perspective.

To understand the shallow candidacy of Chris Christie, you need to begin with his 2009 victory over Democratic Governor Jon Corzine. Corzine's administration was racked by corruption scandals, the governor's extra-marital affair with a state worker union leader, a government shutdown and an SUV accident -- among other things. It was no surprise given all of this and months of Corzine polling in the low 40s that Christie was able to eke out a 49-45 percent victory. Simply put, the 2009 gubernatorial election was a referendum on Jon Corzine and had little to do with Christie's appeal; it was in no way a mandate for the regressive policies that Christie would go on to push through in the state.

Following the 2009 election, Christie went from being a mid-level Bush political appointee who lost almost as many races as he won to being hailed by Republican bigwigs and members of the media as the GOP's next rising star and the dominant force in New Jersey. Christie launched a carefully crafted self-promotion campaign showcasing his "tell it like it is" attitude and was outright overly aggressive, at times crossing over into being a bully. For the first few years of Christie's first term the polls were mixed about the governor and his administration. A September 2012 Rutgers-Eagleton poll found Christie trailing a generic Democratic challenger 47 percent to 44 percent. Most political insiders were predicting a tough road to re-election in 2013.

Then Hurricane Sandy hit and Christie rose to the occasion, acting as a leader, a healer, and then embracing President Obama. At the same time, Christie lambasted members of his own party and touted his accomplishments as Governor of New Jersey. The truth is, under Christie's administration New Jersey has faced record unemployment (the highest in the region) and falls near the bottom in economic job growth in the country. Despite these facts, Christie protected tax cuts for millionaires while vetoing an increase in the minimum wage. Beyond economic issues, Christie has consistently opposed legislation and taken positions which run in stark contrast to the people of New Jersey including slashing funding for women's health programs, vetoing legislation that would have allowed for early voting, and opposing marriage equality, just to name a few. Given the little opposition that Christie faced and the positive press that surrounded him following Hurricane Sandy, his approval ratings skyrocketed and public polls showed him leading all comers. As a result the Democrat's strongest candidates (Cory Booker, Dick Codey, Frank Pallone) decided not to run, leaving the spot open to a little-known state Senator Barbara Buono.

Buono was unable to raise the money necessary to run a credible campaign and struggled throughout the election with low name recognition. In fact, a Quinnipiac poll released THE DAY BEFORE THE ELECTION found that 37 percent of voters had not heard enough about Buono to form an opinion on whether they viewed her favorably. The closest Buono ever came to Christie in the polls was a 16-point deficit in October 2012 (before Hurricane Sandy hit the state).

Despite Buono's near-anonymity (no joke), Christie outspending her by five to one, and a $25 million "Stronger Than The Storm" TV ad and marketing campaign prominently featuring Christie and his family, Christie managed to win by just 22 points.

Not including the "Stronger than the Storm" ads, Christie spent $2.9 million during the last week of the campaign alone, nearly twice Buono's TV budget for the entire election. Christie spent more than $1 million on Spanish-language television ads, while Barbara Buono spent $1.5 million -- total -- on TV during the entire race. Christie's ad campaign disqualified Buono. She never even had a chance to introduce herself to voters.

But still, New Jersey voters were clearly not enthusiastic about voting for Christie, as evidenced by the state's historic low turnout. Just 38 percent of registered voters cast a ballot, the lowest turnout rate of any New Jersey gubernatorial election in modern American history.

Not surprisingly, among those voters who did show up, the electorate was more conservative than it has been in previous elections. According to exit polls, just 40 percent of voters identified as Democrats this year, down from 44 percent in 2012. Meanwhile, the Republican vote share increased from 26 percent in 2012 to 28 percent in 2013. Most tellingly, among this markedly more conservative electorate, exit polls showed Hillary Clinton would defeat Chris Christie 48 percent to 44 percent in New Jersey in a hypothetical presidential matchup -- even as Christie celebrated his win and just after having spent millions burnishing the Christie name.

With Christie at the top of the ballot, Republican leaders believed they had a good shot at taking control of the state Senate. However, Christie neglected his own party and, it has been suggested, cut a deal with some Democratic Party leaders in South Jersey (where most of the battleground senate districts were located), agreeing to stay out of the region in exchange for them not campaigning aggressively against him. As a result of that, and with a strong effort by labor and other progressive outside groups, Democrats did not lose a single senate seat, and there was no change in the partisan composition of the state Assembly. Further down the ballot, Democrats actually had a net gain of four county freeholder seats statewide. Voters also overwhelmingly approved a ballot measure raising the state's minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $8.25 an hour, with a COLA adjustment. The measure was placed on the ballot after Christie vetoed a similar piece of legislation in 2012.

Former Republican Governor Tom Kean (an icon to New Jersey Republicans), who was re-elected in 1985 by a huge margin that allowed Republicans to flip 14 assembly seats, was baffled by Christie's lack of coattails, saying, "No governor I know in any state has won by 20 points and not had coattails."

Remarkably, despite spending a fortune and with a comfortable lead throughout the campaign, Christie barely lifted a finger to help elect any other Republicans. But it fits a pattern. After his 2012 Republican convention speech, Christie was criticized by many Republicans for emphasizing his own record without promoting Mitt Romney's presidential campaign. The results this Election Day, coupled with his calculated decision to have a special election for Senate on a Wednesday one month before his November reelection, should further enhance Christie's image as the "I-stick-my-neck-out-for-no-one" candidate.

Though Chris Christie won re-election by 22 points, a closer look at the election suggests that little about his victory should boost his presidential prospects in 2013. His refusal to campaign for down-ballot Republicans reinforces the narrative that Christie only looks out for himself, and his 2016 rivals will be smart to remind voters of this self-interest again and again. All of that -- plus his failed record on the NJ economy, his inevitable move further to the right to attract Republican primary voters, and a past that Mitt Romney's vetters found troubling enough to eliminate him from Vice Presidential consideration in 2012 -- has us wondering what all this "Christie in '16" commotion is all about.

Adam Cohn Senior Political Analyst of The Atlas Project and Jenna Fullmer Senior Associate of The Organizing Group contributed to this post.