One of the most striking political statistics in 2013 was Chris Christie's 51 percent share of the Hispanic vote in November's New Jersey gubernatorial election. While Christie was expected to easily defeat State Senator Barbara Buono, a feat he accomplished with a landslide 60 percent of the vote, his performance among Hispanic voters was often cited as a promising sign of the Republican governor's viability as a national candidate in 2016. This was an exciting development for media pundits given the Republican Party's inability to make inroads with what most political analysts agree is among the most coveted voting blocs in American presidential politics.
Governor Christie should be commended for running a successful campaign and for his 19-point performance improvement among Hispanics from 2009. Undoubtedly, capturing 51 percent of the Hispanic vote is an impressive accomplishment for any Republican politician. But those rushing to extrapolate 2016 conclusions from this single statistic need to hit the brakes ASAP.
Here are three reasons why the contention that 51 percent of the Hispanic vote in New Jersey translates to potential national Hispanic appeal makes a pretty lousy argument:
1. An Unreliable, Small Sample Size
The "Christie earned 51 percent of the Hispanic vote" comes from an election day poll by Edison Research that interviewed 2,468 Garden State voters as they were leaving their voting booths. Edison is a reputable firm, and a survey with such a large sample should yield pretty accurate macro-level data. So what's the problem? Well, Hispanics accounted for only 9 percent of the electorate (and of the polling sample). This means that Edison interviewed only about 222 Hispanic voters out of 2.1 million total voters who participated in the election. The margin of error for such a small sub-sample is ± 7 percent, meaning Christie may have earned as much as 58 percent of the Hispanic vote, but he also may have earned just 44 percent. We're not entirely sure. Given the potential 14-point spread, no credible pollster or political strategist would put a great deal of confidence in this single statistic and neither should you.
2. Low Turnout Helped Christie
The 38 percent turnout for the 2013 New Jersey gubernatorial election was the lowest in recorded history for any November general election for any statewide office, according to the Monmouth University Polling Institute. Low turnout almost certainly helped Christie achieve these seemingly impressive results, for studies have shown that low turnout elections favor incumbents. In addition, we know from exit polling that the Democratic share of the election day electorate was a net six points lower relative to 2012 figures (although it's commensurate with 2009, another off year election). Hence, it's likely that Hispanic Democratic turnout was also low on Election Day and that turnout was higher among Republican-leaning Hispanics.
3. Cross-Party Voting
To me, the most remarkable statistic from the New Jersey election was Christie's 32 percent share of the Democratic vote. Notwithstanding a miracle, obtaining nearly a third of the opposing party's voters in any election would all, but assure you a landslide victory. So, why is nobody extrapolating any 2016 implications from this statistic and why didn't Team Christie stop by the Oval Office while the Obamas were vacationing in Hawaii to begin measuring the drapes? Aside from the obvious two-word response (Hillary Clinton), the answer is that it was well-reported that New Jersey Democratic Party bosses cut deals with Christie knowing they stood no chance to retake the governorship. With a weak Democratic candidate, the result was a significant number of Democrats (including Hispanics) crossing the aisle and voting for the incumbent Republican governor. This is a phenomenon that is unique to New Jersey and highly unlikely to repeat itself in a national setting.
In short, the claim that Christie earned 51 percent of the Hispanic vote is highly suspect because it is based on such a small polling sample. Even if it were true, the statistic should be taken with a grain of salt because it was largely facilitated by political conditions that are unique to New Jersey and this particular election. Let us just assume though that Christie did in fact earn 51 percent of the Hispanic vote and that the Hispanics who cast a ballot are representative of New Jersey's Hispanic population. Let's also assume that low turnout was a non-factor and that the one-third of Democratic voters switched sides because they supported Christie's policies and not because they were encouraged to do so by party bosses in exchange for promises of greater leverage at the bargaining table.
Even with all of these factors working for Gov. Christie, it would be foolish to draw conclusions about his 2016 viability from his re-election in New Jersey for a few simple reasons: 1) A gubernatorial election in a small state with a bifurcated media market split between New York in the north and Pennsylvania in the south is very different than the intense scrutiny and complexities of a national presidential campaign; 2) The demographics and politics of New Jersey Hispanics do not necessarily mirror those of Hispanics in states like Florida, Colorado, North Carolina and Virginia; 3.) The Democratic Party will never concede a presidential election the same way it was willing to concede New Jersey; and 4) Barbara Buono is not Hillary Clinton (or any potential Democratic nominee in 2016).
That being said, while it would be injudicious to draw national conclusions from the New Jersey exit polls, Gov. Christie's victory was compelling and noteworthy. Even if Christie's actual Hispanic performance was on the lower end of the margin of error and he received just 44 percent of the Hispanic vote, that is still a heck of a lot better than John McCain or Mitt Romney who fared at 31 percent and 27 percent, respectively. He and his team also deserve credit for keeping progressive groups at bay in a state that President Obama carried by 17 points only a year before. If Christie were to earn the GOP nomination in 2016, he could improve upon the poor performance among Hispanics of his two immediate predecessors, and put states like Florida in the red column; however, this is a far more ambitious, onerous and intricate task than what he accomplished in New Jersey last November.
By definition, false premises make for unsound arguments, but they can still yield true conclusions even if the preceding reasoning is invalid. As such, the contention that "Christie got 51 percent of Hispanic support in New Jersey and all Hispanics and all elections are the same; therefore, Christie can make inroads with Hispanics across the country in 2016" makes for a terrible argument, but with the right mix of messaging, good campaigning and sensible policies, Governor Christie may be able to compete for the hearts and minds of Hispanic voters.