Why Hillary Clinton Fans Aren’t Counting Christie Out

Abortion's no longer a deal-breaker.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie Holds Election Night Party

More where this came from? Chris Christie and his wife Mary Pat celebrate his second term victory. (Photo: Getty)

Last year, I sat in on a talk given by a top Democratic strategist to several media types about the demographic shifts in the country—the increasing influence of Latinos and single female voters, in particular—that would seem, on the face of it, to spell long-term doom for the GOP. During the Q&A portion, one woman, a well-known TV personality, asked the speaker what he thought of Chris Christie. 

The strategist scoffed. “One word for you: Giuliani.” That should have been the end of that, but the woman persisted. “Really? I have to tell you, I know a lot of women out there who like the guy—women you wouldn’t expect to like the guy.” But the strategist was unmoved. “Never. Gonna. Happen.” 

A year later, I still hear the same kinds of comments from friends and colleagues: educated women, mostly in their 30s or 40s, both married and single. They are self-professed middle-of-the road Democrats, wholeheartedly pro-choice and (maybe less wholeheartedly) pro-government. Yet deep down, they like Mr. Christie. They know he’s pro-life and are well aware of his penchant for bluster; they are at least vaguely familiar with his opposition to gay marriage and his criticism of Obamacare. Still, they haven’t written him off. Not entirely.

These women like his straight-shooter persona, elsewhere absent in Beltway politics. They were won over by his deft and reassuring post-Sandy leadership. The comparisons to Rudy Giuliani were inevitable but misleading: The former mayor was seen as an enforcer, Mr. Christie a conciliator. But even Mr. Christie’s size makes him appealing: It gives him ample room to show he can take a joke and dish one, too. He’s a conservative in a populist body. 

That’s not to say that these women don’t support Hillary Clinton or that they’re not part of the loud, insistent drumbeat that beckons her to run every day. But still, they’ve got an eye on the big guy over the GWB. He doesn’t induce reflexive eye rolls like the rest of the field. Marco Rubio? Rand Paul? As if. Chris Christie? I’m listening. …

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CASE IN POINT: In early November, a Quinnipiac poll found that in a hypothetical Clinton-Christie matchup (which I think we’d all agree could well be the Ali-Frazier bout of our times), Mr. Christie would narrowly edge out Ms. Clinton 43 percent to 42 percent among voters of both sexes. Nobody measures the drapes on a margin that slim, but the poll revealed how warmly women—even those who would vote for Ms. Clinton over him—feel toward the Jersey pol. 

While women went for Ms. Clinton over Mr. Christie by a healthy margin of 48 percent to 39 percent, a decent 44 percent of women surveyed said they thought Mr. Christie would make a good president (versus 32 percent who felt he would not). Name another GOP player who induces as much confidence among women.

Mr. Christie’s crossover appeal reveals a fallacy about women: that, to paraphrase Liz Lemon, when it comes to abortion, “That’s a deal-breaker, ladies.” The fact is it’s not. You don’t have to look much further than New Jersey’s recent gubernatorial race for evidence: Mr. Christie trounced his pro-choice rival, Barbara Buono, nailing more than 60 percent of the vote. Among women, he captured 57 percent of the vote to Buono’s 42 percent, even after Ms. Buono hammered Mr. Christie on the $7.5 million he slashed from Planned Parenthood. That issue never really took hold with female voters, who, like much of the electorate, voted on Mr. Christie’s handling of the economy and Sandy recovery efforts.

Even in last year’s presidential race, abortion just wasn’t a top-line issue for most female voters. In September of 2012, a few weeks before the first presidential debate and yet still in the thick of the so-called war on women, a Pew Research poll found that while 54 percent of women cited abortion as an important issue when deciding whom to vote for, it fell behind a slew of other concerns including education (74 percent), health care (81 percent) and taxes (66 percent). “While women view abortion as a more important issue than do men, there is no indication in the survey that is having an impact on the vote choices of women,” Pew concluded.

That could be good news for Mr. Christie if he throws his hat in the ring, which looks about as obvious these days as Snooki’s spray tan. Mr. Christie started out pro-choice but said he changed his mind in the mid-’90s, after hearing his unborn daughter’s heartbeat in an ultrasound. 

A cynic might see that shift as some shrewd early-stage table setting. But even that story telegraphs relatability: He wouldn’t have been the first expectant mom or dad to emerge from the O.B.’s office with a new perspective on terminating a pregnancy. (A friend of mine insists she’s one day going to write an exposé about the astonishing advances in ultrasound technology, so convinced is she that they’re being financed by anti-abortionists.) Mr. Christie’s position on choice is personal but not a crusade—not like it was for Virginia’s Ken Cuccinelli, who arguably lost his bid for governor because of it.

When it comes to social issues, Mr. Christie is no Bloomberg Republican. Take his Planned Parenthood business or his threat to veto a gay marriage law (which he ultimately backed away from). But on the whole, he neither governs by nor is governed by his religious ideology. That’s in stark contrast to the tea party nitwits he lashed out against two years ago in a full-throated defense of Sohail Mohammed, a Muslim judge he had appointed to New Jersey’s Superior Court. After critics suggested that the judge might institute Shariah law, Mr. Christie dismissed them as a bunch of “crazies” in an epic, viral retort. 

Hard to believe, but he of the short fuse and flushed face has emerged as the last reasonable Republican. And that hasn’t gone unnoticed by women who lean in and lean left, women who are the vanguard of a demographic revolution: In four out of 10 households, women are now the breadwinners. They represent 58 percent of the workforce, own 30 percent of the nation’s small businesses and account for 85 percent of all consumer purchases. By 2018, one-third of all new jobs in this country will be generated by female-owned small businesses, according to research from the Guardian Life Small Business Research Institute. Now more than ever, women are receptive to tax-cutting—pro-business pitches that the GOP has historically targeted to its white, male base. 

To preserve his appeal with women, Christie must remain Christie. Any pivots to the right, as is the natural arc of the GOP these days, will undermine his goodwill. Nobody likes a fake, and women whiff them a mile away, which is why beating HRC won’t be easy. She has been in the unforgiving glare of the national spotlight for more than two decades. Women know what they’re getting from her and have come to cherish it. Little could surprise us at this point, except, perhaps, pitting her against someone with the kind of confidence and down-home charisma that vaguely calls to mind the other Clinton.   

Lea Goldman is features and special projects director at Marie Claire magazine. Follow her @lea on Twitter.