(The Root)—Although the Republican National Committee’s 2012 “autopsy” report has been gathering dust on the shelf ever since it was rolled out to much fanfare earlier this year, it looks like at least one 2016 presidential contender actually printed off that report and read the part about the urgent need for Republicans to make inroads with voters of color: Chris Christie.
On his way to winning a second term as New Jersey’s governor in Tuesday’s off-year election, he won nearly every key demographic, including women, seniors and self-described independents.
But what jumps off the page when you look at the exit polls are the 51 percent of Latinos and 21 percent of black voters who pulled the lever for Christie. It’s not an outright majority of minority votes, but when you compare the governor’s numbers with the dismal 27 percent of Latinos and 6 percent of black votes that Mitt Romney won in 2012—and factor in the GOP’s struggles to appeal to minorities—Christie’s numbers look pretty formidable.
Now everyone’s taking notice.
The Daily Beast’s John Avlon wrote that, “Without pandering, Christie made real progress in appealing to voters outside the lily-white confines of the conservative base.” And as the Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart matter-of-factly explained, “African Americans and Latinos will vote for Republicans if those candidates give them a reason to do so”—something that should have been obvious to Republican candidates all along.
Even if Christie didn’t actually get around to reading that RNC report, he wound up validating its findings by taking the same steps that it outlines to avoid “writing off” black and Latino voters.
How’d he do it?
For starters, Christie mostly eschews the nonstop demonization of President Barack Obama that characterizes a lot of GOP politics these days—and that most voters of color consider a deal-breaker. More recently, Christie’s been critical of the president’s handling of Obamacare, but last year, he went out of his way to be seen as reaching across the aisle when he toured the Jersey Shore alongside the president after super-storm Sandy.
Christie won the support of African Americans like Michael Blunt, the Democratic mayor of Chesilhurst, N.J., who told the New York Times Tuesday that Christie shows up to compete for black votes in places where Republicans usually don’t campaign, and that “If a person has no problem going into enemy territory to explain his policies, that person we really need to look at.”
And during his gubernatorial run, Christie flip-flopped toward Latino voters by coming out in favor of charging in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants at public universities. It’s a reversal on which members of his own party on will challenge him, but it puts him on the same page with many Latinos on an issue that resonates within the Latino community.
But not everyone’s convinced that Christie’s in-state success will translate to the national level.
WaPo’s Reid Wilson argues that Christie is like a hot stock that will probably cool off over time.
And Kevin Williams—a New Jersey native who produced the 2008 documentary Fear of a Black Republican—told The Root that while he supports Christie and applauds him for “campaigning in areas that haven’t seen Republicans in ages,” he thinks that without Sen. Cory Booker’s presence on Tuesday’s ballot, Democratic turnout was artificially low, and allowed Christie to coast to a victory against a rival who national Democrats pretty much “left by the side of the road.”
In other words, don’t read too much into one election.
Because before Christie can call himself a 2016 frontrunner, he’ll have to come up with a strategy for maneuvering around right-wingers like Sen. Ted Cruz in a series of ruby-red primary states.
And that’s before he gets a chance to go toe-to-toe with a well-financed Democratic contender like Hillary Clinton—whom those same New Jersey voters said they’d favor over Christie by a margin of 48 to 44 percent—and who has a chance to become the first woman president.
With the White House at stake, no matter who the Democrats run, Christie can’t expect to cruise.
Right now, though, he stands out as the only Republican who’s both a serious threat to win his own party’s nomination and who might also peel a few minority voters away from a Democrat.
Don’t read too much into that. But don’t write it off, either.
David Swerdlick is a contributing editor for The Root. Follow him on Twitter.
David Swerdlick is an associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.