HOBOKEN, N.J. -- Voters were heading to the polls in New Jersey on Tuesday, where incumbent Gov. Chris Christie is expected to win in a landslide victory, an outcome some see as a step toward a presidential campaign in 2016.
A poll released this week by Quinnipiac University showed Christie with a 2-1 lead over his opponent, Democrat Barbara Buono. New Jersey voters also headed to the polls on a brisk but sunny fall day to vote whether to raise the minimum wage to $8.25 an hour, from $7.25.
Christie, a Republican, has tried to appear a bipartisan leader as he campaigned in a bus in the days leading up to the campaign, something that appears to appeal to New Jersey voters, who have praised his handling of Hurricane Sandy one year after the storm.
But the famously blunt governor wasn’t able to avoid controversy in the final days of his campaign.
At a rally last weekend, a teacher approached him about his education policies, and said that he cut her off, and it resulted in a picture that circulated on the web of Christie pointing a finger at her and apparently yelling. And tidbits from “Double Down,” the sequel to the political book “Game Change,” emerged last week, indicating that Mitt Romney had considered Christie as a potential running mate, nicknamed him “Pufferfish,” and ultimately decided that Christie’s weight, among other issues, would not make him a good candidate.
None of that will make a difference in the New Jersey election, though, said Maurice Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.
“He’s unbeatable,” he said, about Christie. “For the whole three years and counting, he’s dominated New Jersey politics without a question. He’s just a force of nature.”
It was Hurricane Sandy and its aftermath that really cemented Christie’s popularity in New Jersey, Carroll said. Christie toured the damaged areas with President Obama, giving him a bear hug in a show of bipartisan support, and chastised House Republicans for delaying a vote on a Sandy relief bill.
Christie’s handling of Sandy made Hoboken resident Drew Moss, 47, a supporter of the governor. Moss, who was out campaigning for Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer, a Democrat, on Tuesday, said that he likes Christie’s fiscal control and his bipartisanship, but said he really liked how Christie acted when New Jersey flooded.
“I appreciate that he reached out to Obama,” said Moss, who had flooding in his house after the storm. “I like the guy.”
Hoboken resident Michael Ocasio, 18, was voting in his first election Tuesday. He considers himself a Democrat but voted for Christie as well.
“He’s really supportive of New Jersey,” Ocasio said. “He really rolls up his sleeves and gets involved.”
Of course, not all Democrats are convinced. They criticize Christie for his socially conservative positions, pointing out that he vetoed funding for family planning clinics and tried for a long time to prevent gay marriage in New Jersey. He recently withdrew an appeal challenging a court decision that would have legalized gay marriage, and the state now allows gay marriage.
“He casts himself as a moderate, but he’s anti-gay, anti-woman, and I think the guy’s a bully,” said Joe Murray, 72, who voted for Buono.
If Christie wins more than 50% of the vote, he will be the first Republican to do so in New Jersey since 1985. Nearly half of New Jersey voters aren’t registered with a political party. One-third are registered Democrats, and 20% are Republicans. A few weeks ago, Cory Booker, a Democrat, won a statewide special election for U.S. Senate, 55% to 44%.
A big Christie win would help him prove to the GOP that he can win the support of independents and swing voters. But it’s unclear if the same people who vote for Christie for governor would support him for president.
A Quinnipiac poll released last month found that only 42% of New Jersey voters said they thought Christie would make a good president, while 43% said he wouldn’t. Voters answered that question along party lines -- 71% of Republicans thought he would make a good president, while 70% of Democrats said he wouldn’t.
Megan Brewer, 27, said she’d probably end up voting for Christie in Tuesday’s election. She likes how he handled Sandy, and she likes that he went after teacher’s unions in the state, because they previously had too much power. She doesn’t agree with Christie on social issues, though, and would be concerned should he run for national office.
“I appreciate what Christie has done for the state, but I’m concerned that a big win would set him up to run for higher office,” she said. “But at this point, he’s the lesser of two evils.”