Is New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie Overhyped?

by Stuart Rothenberg February 1, 2013 · 9:00 AM EST

While this year’s race for governor in Virginia will draw plenty of attention, the 2013 gubernatorial contest in New Jersey looks like a yawner.

But it’s a mistake to draw too grand a conclusion from Republican Gov. Chris Christie’s current standing in the polls, either for how he will perform in November or how his current job approval numbers set him up for a possible presidential run in 2016.

Christie, 50, is being evaluated now by Garden State voters not as a politician or political leader, but rather as a symbol of state pride and survival after the damage done to the state by Hurricane Sandy in October.

The most recent state survey, Quinnipiac University’s Jan. 15-21 poll of registered voters, showed the governor’s job approval at 74 percent, with 56 percent of Democrats and 78 percent of independents approving of his performance. (In contrast, President Barack Obama’s job approval among the same respondents stood at only 54 percent.)

Christie showed strength across all demographic groups. Even 69 percent of women and 56 percent of blacks approved of how the Republican has handled his job, stunning numbers in a Democratic state.

Christie’s personal “favorable” rating stood at 69 percent, a full 40 points higher than the 29 percent of New Jersey registered voters who had a favorable view of the Republican Party.

Initially, a handful of Democrats, including state Sen. Richard Codey, who served for a time as acting governor and later as the governor, and state Senate President Stephen Sweeney, were mentioned as potential challengers to the governor. But those big names passed, and party insiders have lined up behind state Sen. Barbara Buono, 59, who announced her candidacy in December.

Christie holds a 41-point lead (63 percent to 22 percent) over Buono, a Middlesex County Democrat who needs to find some fatal flaw in the governor or in his administration during the next nine months to have any chance of pulling off an upset.

But partisan elections usually encourage voters to start to thinking in partisan terms, and given the state’s Democratic bent — it hasn’t elected a Republican to the U.S. Senate in 40 years — there are plenty of Democratic voters who now approve of Christie’s performance but will turn negative when they start evaluating his entire record.

That means that the governor’s huge margins in general-election ballot tests could shrink significantly as Election Day approaches.

If the governor does win a second term comfortably, the possibility of a Christie run for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016 will get plenty of attention from cable television and political pontificators from both parties.

But it would be a mistake to get too carried away about Christie’s prospects in 2016 just because he is almost certain to be re-elected in the Garden State.

Part of the governor’s appeal in his state (and re-election strength) follows from his political embrace of Obama after Hurricane Sandy devastated New Jersey’s coast, as well as from his criticism of House Republicans for delaying passage of a relief bill.

But while those actions boosted his reputation in the state and among members of the national media for political independence and straight talk, they aren’t likely to be regarded the same way by Republican activists and primary voters when the party picks its nominee for president.

If he runs for president, Christie will have to overcome the impression that he went much farther than he needed to in praising Obama right before the 2012 balloting, as well as that he showed too much relish in criticizing House Republicans.

Maybe even more important, one veteran Republican strategist suggests, “there will be a consensus in the party that we lost the last two presidential elections because we nominated moderates (John McCain and Mitt Romney). Conservatives will demand a conservative, and that may leave Christie out in the cold.”

With a field that could well include Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and Wisconsin Rep. Paul D. Ryan, Christie suddenly doesn’t seem so imposing.

Christie’s best chance for the Republican presidential nomination may well have been in the winter of 2011-12, when many Republicans (both activists and contributors) were worried about Romney’s chances and were looking for an alternative.

Back then, Christie might well have rallied both conservatives and establishment Republicans. But in 2015 and 2016, given the potential field, the New Jersey Republican is not likely to look like the political savior he might once have been.

If he runs for the GOP nomination in 2016, Christie deserves to be taken seriously. Just don’t expect him to be the political powerhouse that his current 74 percent job approval suggests.