SOMERVILLE, N.J.—Chris Christie tells a joke about New Jersey that you could never get away with. At a Saturday night rally in Toms River, N.J., one of the coastal towns brutalized by Hurricane Sandy, Christie begins the story with a warning—kids should cover their ears. They’re covered? Okay: The story starts at a “senior wellness day” in West Orange, as the governor was milling around and talking to likely voters. Christie got a tap on his shoulder.
“This woman said, ‘Hi, governor. My name is Gladys,’ ” Christie recounts, standing on a high school football field, flanked by his family, flags, and four security officers. “I said, ‘Hi, Gladys.’ She said, ‘I’m from Newark, New Jersey. Lived there my whole life.’ I said, ‘Me too.’ She said, ‘I’m 82 years old. I didn’t vote for you last time.’ I said, ‘don’t worry about it Gladys, a lot of people didn’t.’ She said, ‘I’m voting for you this time.’ ”
It sounds, at first, like the story of yet another African-American voter warming to the governor’s charms. The polls that put Christie anywhere from 18 to 32 points ahead of his Democratic opponent, State Sen. Barbara Buono, show him pulling more than a quarter of the black vote. But Christie’s crowd is chuckling. There’s a punch line at the end of this.
“She said, ‘Ever since Hurricane Sandy, every night I’ve prayed for you,’ Christie continues. “I said, ‘Thank you Gladys, that is really wonderful. Kind. I appreciate it.’ She said, ‘A few weeks ago I saw you standing in front of that fire, that awful fire in Seaside Park. I saw you standing behind that bank of microphones, and I have to tell you, for the first time in four years, I was worried about you. You looked so tired.’ I said, ‘That wasn’t my best day. She said, ‘That night I said a special prayer for you.’ I said, ‘Thank you.’ She said, ‘You want to hear it?’ I said, ‘Okay.’ She said, ‘That night before I went to bed, I prayed Lord, please give our governor strength, because I’m not sure how much shit this boy can take.’ ”
The crowd, hundreds of people spread out across the football bleachers, explodes with laughter. “True story!” says Christie. “People ask me, what’s it like to run for governor of New Jersey? That’s what it’s like. You go to a senior wellness event, you go up to this 82-year-old, dignified, African-American woman, she tells you she’s going to vote for you, and she doesn’t hesitate for a moment to use the word Lord and the word shit within two sentences of each other. These are my people! I know this, because I was born here. I was raised here. I’ve spent my whole life here.”
When he was running for president, Barack Obama had a story like this. He was tired, drained, done, hitting the trail in South Carolina even though he was desperately behind in the polls. An elderly African-American woman filled him back up with her chant of “fired up, ready to go!” The chant turned into a mantra that’s still heard at Democratic events.
Christie’s story isn’t so easily copied. It’s about him—his unique appeal, the affect he has on people, the sense of humor he has about his state. At another Saturday rally, inside a VFW hall in Somers Point, Christie adds to the “I was born here” riff by explaining why he’s so true to New Jersey. “No one needed to teach me how to talk in New Jersey,” he says. “No one needed to teach me how to act in New Jersey. No one needed to teach me how to lead in New Jersey. I know you. I’m one of you. That’s why I have so much fun in this job. That’s why you notice how much fun I’m having in this job.”
If it’s a jab at Buono, it reveals just how in control of this race the governor thinks he is. Christie was born in Newark; so was she. The Democrat tells audiences about the early death of her father, her struggles as a single mother, how she survived on food stamps before going to law school and building her career. But Christie’s had an easy time defining her as a throwback to Gov. Jon Corzine, the man he defeated in 2009, and as a negative campaigner with no agenda beyond what the unions command her to do.
The last poll taken on the governor’s race before Hurricane Sandy put Buono down by 16 points to Christie. The first poll taken after the storm put her down by 38 points. Since then, she has never trailed by less than 18 points. This deficit understates how well Christie has outplayed Buono, and the impossible time she’s had looking for a consistent message against him. She’s tried to convince the state’s reliable Democrats to bail on Christie over his opposition to gay marriage, over his thwarting of a gun control bill, over the fact that he will probably run for president. In one of her final TV ads, Buono talks straight to camera about how she’s “the only one running for governor.”
That’s a strange line of attack, given how open Christie is about running for president, and how unbothered New Jerseyians are by the prospect. At campaign stops, he warns voters against getting dazzled by the polls by telling them an anecdote about a woman he met in a diner. “I walked up to her, and she was all excited, big smile on her face,” he says. “She said, ‘Governor, I’m so excited to meet you!’ I said, ‘Well, thank you.’ She said, ‘I can’t wait to vote for you for president in 2016!’ I said, ‘Huh, that’s really nice, but I have an election on Tuesday. I’d like you to vote for me there first.’ She said, ‘Ah, you got it wrapped up.’ That’s the thing that keeps guys like me up at night.”
Democrats don’t really think Buono could have won—not after Sandy—but the missed opportunities were glaring. The most devastating final poll, a Rutgers-Eagleton survey that put Christie up by 36 points, went on to ask whether voters would back Tuesday’s ballot initiative to raise the minimum wage by a dollar. They would—by 38 points. Could Buono have tightened things up, even a little, by sticking to one populist issue the way other losers made it closer by focusing on car insurance (Jim McGreevey, 1997) or property taxes (Doug Forrester, 2005)?
“She keeps saying he’s going to run for president,” says voter Jim Logan at Christie’s Somers Point rally. “Who cares? Some people think that’s a good idea. She shoulda fired whoever was working for her and she should have focused on property taxes.”
Too late to speculate. The governor has steadily won over local Democratic power brokers, even ones who (pre-Sandy) said they’d never back him. Their big idea: Spare the Democrats in the state legislature from the fallout of a Buono rout. It’s working, according to Democratic state Sen. Loretta Weinberg. “We’re up in our tracking polls,” she tells me at a Democratic campaign office. Even that Rutgers-Eagleton poll, which Democrats don’t trust (it was 10 points off in the October race for U.S. Senate) has them up by 6 points in the race for the legislature. Christie’s “cult of personality,” as Weinberg calls it, hasn’t been transferred to Republicans. He’s outspent Buono; Democrat-aligned independent expenditures have buried the Republican candidates down the ballot.