[Editor's Note: This post by Matt Rooney was originally featured in JerseyMan Magazine]
It’s often difficult for a political geek like myself to admit it, but when your average voter heads to the polls every first Tuesday in November, the issues aren’t always at the top of his or her mind.
That’s not to say voters don’t care about the dimensions of tax policy, school funding, health care reform or consequential questions of war and peace. They most certainly do. And occasionally they show it by sending one of the major parties packing to the corner for a time out. Election 2006 for the Republicans and Election 2010 for the Democrats are recent, albeit dramatic, examples. Those examples are nevertheless exceptions to the rule.
Which rule? Representative democracy is necessarily a process dominated by a popularity contest. Voters are called upon to make an informed decision concerning whom they’d like to mind the store on a day-to-day basis, at least on a trial basis until the next election. It’s easy for observers to forget that the participant voters are real people; outside of the voting booth, they’re businessmen, teachers, students, mothers and soldiers. They’re busy running businesses, families, and communities. Real people want to vote for a “real” person capable of inspiring confidence in them. Likability is at the heart of this informal analysis, making an election not all-too different from an extended (and expensive) job interview. Put another way, voters like to promote people whom they like and with whom they can identify.
For a clear illustration of this principle, look back at every presidential election since the dawn of television and identify the one where the less “cool” candidate prevailed. Can’t do it? Exactly. Could Jersey-tude be the new cool for Election 2016?
New Jersey’s freshly-reelected Gov. Chris Christie understands “real” voters and how they make decisions at a deeper level better than just about anyone else out there right now in American politics. They want something “real,” an authentic experience, and the Springsteen-obsessed, straight-shooting Jersey Shore fanatic from Essex County serves it up to them in heaping doses of brutal honesty blasted out on the nightly news and by way of an impressive social media apparatus. The “real leadership” narrative is a large part of the reason why he rolled up a historic 22-point landslide over his Democrat challenger in the November 2013 New Jersey gubernatorial election and, moving forward, one catalyst for widespread enthusiasm ahead of his long-anticipated 2016 presidential candidacy.
Will Iowa farmers, New Hampshire clerks and South Carolina housewives share in that enthusiasm? Early indicators are mixed. I’ve been covering Chris Christie’s every move since 2008 via my political blog, SaveJersey.com, when the man who might soon go toe-to-toe with Hillary Clinton was only regionally-famous as a tough-talking U.S. Attorney racking up an impressive record of political Garden State corruption convictions.
But that’s the part of the story with which you’re at least cursorily familiar. We’ve all seen clips of the oversized former federal prosecutor locking up dirty pols, manhandling public sector unions and redefining the phrase “YouTube moment” for all time. The Christie story started well before he assumed the U.S. Attorney post for the District of New Jersey in January 2002. It’s an unambiguously New Jersey story. Any true understanding of the man who many think might be the next president of the United States can’t overlook how the Garden State shaped the man presently known by fervent supporters as “The Gov.”
Born in Newark in 1962 and raised in the nearby suburb of Livingston, NJ, Christie would undoubtedly agree that his parents Sondra and Wilbur “Bill” Christie proved the most important actors in his early formation. Politically-astute New Jerseyans are most familiar with Chris Christie’s late Sicilian mother, a popular matriarchal figure in their neighborhood who succumbed to breast cancer in 2004, as a reoccurring character in his stump speeches and public addresses. He frequently and often tearfully cites her compassion, street sense and plain-spoken honesty as his archetype for good leadership in the public sphere. She imparted to him the ability to speak hard truths tempered by a disarming warmth that makes the medicine go down a little easier, a skill which the Governor has employed in statehouse meeting rooms and hurricane-ravaged beaches throughout his first term in Trenton.
Folks who’ve known “Chris” since he was just a little guy, however, recall that while he obtained his passion from his maternal stem, the future governor’s drive, determination and take-no-prisoners approach to life in general came from Bill. A retired accountant and descendent of Scotch-Irish immigrants, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting the grandfatherly Christie patriarch at various political functions over the past four years. He presents as a mild mannered and kindly gentleman—in the truest sense of the word—not all that unlike Chris Christie’s boyhood political idol, former New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean.
That’s today. I’m told “Mr. Christie” (as he is commonly referred to by deferential Christie partisans) was a genuinely loving but unapologetically intense parent who passed a penchant for living life intensely on to his eldest son before mellowing himself later in life. He was the kind of dad who would ask, paraphrasing, “where the other three points walked off to” if his child came home with a “97″ grade on a school paper. It’s no wonder that the future governor remains a performance-oriented administrator. He learned young that results were all that mattered.
The Christie family wasn’t poor by any means but the Essex County community of Livingston is more diverse than its median household income of $129,208 would suggest. My fellow New Jerseyans like to romanticize their lives with comparisons to Bruce Springsteen ballads but it’s not all so grim as closing factories and teenage pregnancies. There remains, however, a stunning level of diversity from block-to-block in densely crowded Northern New Jersey counties like Essex, which is decidedly unique relative to other places in America. Back when Chris Christie was growing up and through the present day, Livingston residents will tell you there were two types of kids in the town of nearly 30,000: those who shipped off to fancy summer camps and came back with tans, and those who had never seen a horse much less ridden one and wondered where the other kids went for two and a half months.
The Christie clan fit into the latter category. Chris Christie grew up in a modest three bedroom rancher with one bathroom situated alongside a busy portion of Route 10. The family of five took, at most, one week of vacation annually; sometimes that vacation was preempted if dad’s work commitments necessitated the decision. Mrs. Christie worked, too, so the Christie children could not rely on their father’s reinforcing behavior alone to cultivate the discipline necessary to succeed outside of their rancher’s confines.
Still, even if Chris Christie was truly “born to run,” at times he felt stuck on a “highway jammed with broken heroes on a last chance power drive.” Christie’s political trajectory was interrupted in its early stages. His public career began when, as the now-famous story goes, his Democrat mother dropped him on former Republican Gov. Kean’s doorstep in 1977 during his first gubernatorial campaign to volunteer. As a teen, Christie regularly rallied his fellow “Livingston Lancers” to raise hell around town, once even leading a successful boycott of a local diner that refused to serve his friends for failing to order enough food. His first run for office (a 1993 state senate bid) was a failure, not an all-too-uncommon result for a first-time candidate. He did land a spot on the Morris County freeholder board but, after a rocky tenure marred by lawsuits and a failed assembly primary attempt, he was defeated in a freeholder primary in 1997 and found himself relegated to the margins of Republican politics. Then came the weight, a struggle which he only now appears to have his hands around after undergoing lap band surgery in early 2013.
It’s hard to underestimate the extent to which those early defeats nearly ended Chris Christie’s public aspirations. It was only through the encouragement of close allies, including Kean, that Christie seized an opportunity to serve as U.S. Attorney and implement the lessons learned from past political missteps.
There’s no longer any doubt as to whether Chris Christie’s Jersey-tude works in the tri-state area. Sixty-plus percent of his fellow New Jerseyans went to the polls and renewed his tenure for another four years, or at least as much of it as he is willing to serve. The $1 million question is whether New Jersey—or any majority of another state’s citizenry across the fruited plain—will support him should he choose to finish early and pursue the presidential prize.
The jury is still out. For a little perspective rooted in plenty of empirical study, I spoke to Patrick Murray of the Jersey-based Monmouth University [NJ] Polling Institute, an organization that has earned a reputation as 2013′s most accurate prognosticator of statewide race margins. When I specifically asked Murray for his take on the national marketability of Chris Christie’s persona, he was quick to point out how CNN’s 2013 exit polling found Christie trailing Hillary Clinton by four points among the same New Jersey voters who overwhelmingly reelected him; moreover, only half thought he would make a “good” president regardless of whether they’d actually support the venture.
Perhaps it’s a case of familiarity breeding caution? “Whatever his persona is, it’s selling now,” Murray conceded when asked about national voters’ perceptions of New Jersey’s most famous politician three-years out from Election 2016. “What they see from him, they like. But they don’t see him day in, day out like we do. Will Independents continue to like him better if they get to know him better?”
He may be on to something profound. In fact, Murray wonders whether the Governor’s greatest strength will prove a double-edged sword on the Iowa fairgrounds or during a hard-to-choreograph walk through a New Hampshire or South Carolina business district.
It’s a valid and presently open question. We’ve seen Chris Christie lose his temper before and, in so doing, set aside the style points learned from his mother. Sometimes his habit of devouring mouthy hecklers or entrenched political bureaucrats contributes to the impression that he’s refreshingly honest. At other times, even supportive Republicans cringe at what his detractors claim is “bullying” behavior. “When you go at him, he steps out of his rehearsed routine,” Murray opined when I inquired whether the Governor’s tough talk could be used against him. “If you touch the right buttons you can get him to react,” a lesson which more than one intrepid teacher’s union loyalist or stubborn newspaper reporter has learned over the past few years.
The gender gap didn’t matter in New Jersey’s Election 2013 owing to the scope of the victory and the demographics of the participating electorate. Could Christie’s opponents exploit his passions to generate gaffes and score points in a presidential race?
What’s clear is that the increasingly small, yet fiercely loyal, Christie inner circle of informal advisors and campaign professionals don’t view his outbursts as a liability. Far from it. Even at times when they might’ve wished for a little more restraint from their candidate—Gov. Christie’s fawning praise of President Barack Obama and the federal response to Superstorm Sandy comes to mind—they remain unwilling to tamper with what they see as his greatest asset: authenticity.
Even Christie critics would concur that America’s patience for slick politicians with smooth edges covering empty rhetoric is waning. Successful campaigns create contrast, and there’s certainly no bigger departure from the smooth-talking Obama and the measured Romney than the brawler from Livingston. There may nevertheless be a point at which too much truth can turn off folks who aren’t ready for a tough guy who thrives on confrontation. Christie supporters are betting that the demand for something real will overwhelm regional different and political sensitivities. We’ll know soon enough. The first market tests for Chris Christie’s intensely-Jersey political style are only two years away in a cornfield far from the highways and byways which, win, lose or draw, birthed one of the most compelling personalities of our political age and who, uncoincidentally, mixes it up with a Jersey accent.
Matt Rooney is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Save Jersey Blog (savejersey.com), a leading and nationally-recognized New Jersey political news website. When he isn’t covering and commenting on the Garden State’s robust political culture, Matt is a practicing matrimonial attorney at the Haddon Heights law firm of DeMichele & DeMichele, P.C.