Why Christie's appeal to minority voters in New Jersey won't immediately translate to the national stage

Gov. Chris Christie, on the verge of a resounding reelection victory in New Jersey, is prepared to cast his victory there as a sign he can lift the party to victory in 2016 by winning over minority voters who have long shunned the GOP.

“The eyes of America will be on New Jersey on November 5th,” Christie said a few weeks ago, according to The Star Ledger, the largest paper in Newark. “When we have the country looking at us … what they’re going to see is a coalition supporting the governor like no other Republican has anywhere in the country: Hispanic voters, African-American voters, members of the building trades unions, people who live in the suburbs, people who live in cities, people who live on our farms, in the north of our state, in the central part and in the south.”

Christie’s statement was unsubtle and obviously geared at 2016.  And polls show Christie could win as much as 30 percent of the black vote and half of the Latino vote on Tuesday against his Democratic opponent, State Sen. Barbara Buono, who has generated little enthusiasm even within her own party.

But his argument, that winning minority voters in New Jersey means he can do so nationally, is not as clear cut as the governor says. Here’s a look at why:

1.  History

If Christie won half the Hispanic vote and 30 percent of the black vote in a presidential election, he would not only easily be elected president, but be perhaps the most talented politician of his generation, reversing major historical trends.

In the last 11 presidential elections (starting with 1972, the earliest date for which I had detailed exit polling), the best Republican performance among black voters was 18 percent, which Richard Nixon won in 1972. Gerald Ford won 16 percent four years later, but perhaps reflecting changes in the parties since the emergence of Ronald Reagan, no Republican since Ford has won more than 12 percent of the black vote. The average in those 11 elections was 11 percent for the Republican candidate among blacks.

In 2004, George W. Bush won about 44 percent of Latinos, but Republicans have averaged 31 percent in the last 11 presidential elections.

So if Christie, in 2016, won even half (15 percent) of the black vote nationally that he may in New Jersey, he would perform better than almost any modern Republican presidential candidate.

But is there an obvious reason to think Christie is so singularly unique that a bloc of voters (blacks) that is so strongly Democratic in national elections will make a discernible shift to him? George H.W. Bush (1988 and 1992), Bob Dole (1996) and George W. Bush (2004) all broke 10 percent of the black vote, but barely. Running against the first black Democratic presidential nominee, McCain and Romney struggled to get even 5 percent of the black vote.

This data shows that black voters are largely driven by party, not identity or race. John Kerry, Al Gore, Michael Dukasis and Walter Mondale all trounced their Republican opponents among blacks (each won at least 86 percent of blacks) suggesting Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden or another white Democrat could do the same in 2016.

Latinos aren’t as Democratic as blacks, and they are more complicated group to measure, because of their huge growth of the last four decades and their internal diversity (Cubans and Mexicans don’t vote the same). But Republicans have hovered between 24 and 37 percent of the Latino vote for most of the last 11 elections.

Christie getting half of the Latino vote in a national election would also be astounding. George W. Bush spoke some Spanish, had extensive experience campaigning to Latinos from his experience in Texas and was running in a time (2004) before immigration became a dividing line between the parties and the different wings within the GOP. (To be sure, Christie could be running with a Latino running mate, which also be a history-making move.)

2. A more modest shift may not matter

Of course, you say, Christie wouldn’t do as well among minority voters in a national election as he would in New Jersey, but just closing the gap in minority voters would be helpful.

Not as much as you think. In 2012, Mitt Romney, while winning 59 percent of the white vote (only three of the other ten Republican candidates since 1972 matched or exceeded that number), still lost to Obama by about 5 million votes. (66 million to 61 million).  He was hobbled by getting only 27 percent of the Hispanic vote and 6 percent of the black vote.

Crunching the numbers, if Christie had run in 2012 and somehow won 11 percent of the black vote, the historical average, he would have won close to 1 million additional black votes beyond what Romney did. If Christie had earned 31 percent of the Hispanic vote, matching the historic average, he would have gained an additional 0.5 million votes beyond Romney. Gaining an additional 1.5 million votes would still have left the Republican behind Obama in the popular vote.

A Republican who carried, say, 13 percent of the black vote and 37 percent of the Latino vote would likely win. But broader trends will require any successful Republican candidate to make substantial gains among minority voters, not just doing slightly better than Romney, or to do even better among white voters. From 2008 to 2012, the percentage of American voters who were white went slightly down, while the number of black, Hispanic and Asians all increased. The latter two groups are likely to become an ever larger part of the electorate in 2016 because they are growing in the overall population, even if blacks decline to pre-Obama levels in turnout.

Also, Romney underperformed among Latinos and blacks compared to past Republicans, but a strong Democratic candidate, like Hillary Clinton, could improve upon Obama’s weak performance among whites. Both Obama (2008) and Bill Clinton (1996) won 43 percent of the white vote in recent years. Obama’s 39 percent in 2012 was among the lowest percentages of any Democrat in the last 11 elections.