“I Can’t Wait to Vote for You for President!”

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is getting ready to go national.

Chris Christie
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie speaks at the reopening ceremony for the Little Egg Harbor Township community center on the one year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy, Oct. 29, 2013.

Photo by Tom Mihalek/Reuters

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.

But can it be? On Saturday, Christie’s campaign bus (emblazoned with the words ”Strong Leadership Now”) parked outside an Atlantic City bakery. The governor bounded outside, in his Rutgers jersey, suit pants, and brown loafers, to become the first candidate in generations to win the endorsement of the city’s Chamber of Commerce. After a short, emotional speech about the development he’d seen in the city, Christie started denouncing the local state senator, Jim Whalen.

“You would think, from watching his commercials, that Jim Whalen and I went to the prom together. I mean, you’d think Jim Whalen’s calling me every morning and asking, ‘Gee, governor, what can I do for you today?’ Let me tell ya, not once in four years has Jim Whalen picked up that phone and asked me that. It’s been me coming to him and saying, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do for Atlantic City.’ He’s just come along for the ride. He’s trying to make it sound like we’re partners.”

“He’s a scumbag!” yelled a supporter from the crowd.

“Well, I can’t say that,” deadpanned Christie. “Sen. Whalen, I want to make sure you’re listening. Don’t mislead the people of the second legislative district that you’ve been a supporter of mine, when you haven’t. Don’t force me to come down here and tell the truth to people.”

Christie’s candidate, Atlantic County Sheriff Frank Balles, smiles and waves as the governor praised him. Not far away, in the highly diverse crowd, state Sen. Tom Kean Jr. grinned at the prospect of taking the majority. All voters needed to do, said Christie, was vote straight down the ballot—“you’re not gonna vote for Buono anyway.” But neither in Atlantic City nor in Somers Point, both rallies attended by Balles, did Christie mention any particular policy he was stymied from doing because he didn’t have a Republican Senate. In Virginia, the struggling campaign of gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli insists that it’s gaining as the candidate makes the election a “referendum on Obamacare.” Christie never mentions Obamacare, or Obama, or any national political issue more specific than Washington’s status as a sick joke.

Buono does talk policy, for all the good it does her. On Sunday morning, she makes the rounds at Democratic Party pre-election breakfasts in Belleville, a stronghold in Essex County, where Christie won 27 percent of the vote in his first race. In the Chandelier restaurant, she walks past tables piled high with pastries and stars-and-stripes trinkets, hugging and chatting with Italian-American women who tell her how good she looks in red. She’s introduced as “our next governor,” and gives a short speech, to people already committed to getting out her vote, about Christie’s record of “New Jersey 42nd in job creation, $2.1 billion in tax credits to corporations, sometimes just to move them a couple blocks, high property taxes, college costs spiraling out of control.” She sings the song of every candidate written off by the national party: It will come down to turnout.

“Last election, for Cory Booker, that Senate election, did you know that three out of four people did not vote?” asks Buono. “It was the lowest voter turnout in our history for a general election. Cory Booker has twice as many people following him on Twitter! This governor wants to disenfranchise people. He wants you to think it’s over. Why else did he veto a bill we sent him that would have allowed in-person early voting?”

That Senate race might be left out of Wednesday morning analysis. Christie, empowered to set an election to replace the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg, could have bundled it with the Nov. 5 race. He opted to set the Senate race for Oct. 16, a Wednesday—“People were showing up on Tuesday thinking they could vote!” says Buono—which unbuckled the fate of Buono or Jim Whelan from the fate of Cory Booker.

That was annoying for Democrats, almost as annoying as the skin-saving Christie endorsements from members of their party. After Buono addresses a room of Nutley Democrats, state Sen. Ron Rice grips the microphone and paces, laying into the Essex County Executive who endorsed Christie this summer.

“A lot of these Democrats say even though we endorsed Gov. Christie he’s been a catastrophe for New Jersey, that the bonding rating has stopped, that he’s not for working people, that he’s not for the minimum wage. All the things Democrats are supposed to be for, he’s not about it. People don’t want to call people out. Well, I’m calling Joe DiVicenzo out for what he is and what he represents! I’m calling out black clergy and politicians who are selling our party out.”

Ralph Caputo, an assemblyman from the district, nods along with Rice. Sure, he says, it would be ideal if Democrats bucked the tide and held the legislature. “But when Tom Kean won,” he says, referring to the old Republican governor’s 40-point landslide in 1985, “we got wiped out. We held two seats in Essex County.”

Until the polls close, even though Democrats hold that legislative race lead, Christie is telling crowds that they really should consider voting for more Republicans, if only to send a message. “If you reward bad behavior, just like what happens with kids, you’ll get more bad behavior,” he says in Somers Point. “If you reward good behavior, you’ll get more good behavior. You know, Tuesday night, America’s watching. America’s watching and they want a new signal of hope for the country’s future, after all the dysfunction in Washington, D.C. They’re gonna look to New Jersey for that hope, and we’re gonna provide it to them on Tuesday.”

I look around the room and see more than one grown man daubing away tears at what Christie’s just said about their state. Voter Jim Logan pulls me aside.

“Only Ronald Reagan could have given a speech like that,” he says. “That last sentence? Yeah, he’s running.”