A lot of people are talking today about this ugly poll chart for Republicans: Gallup found that just 28% of Americans have a favourable view of the Republican Party, down 10 points from last month and the lowest level since Gallup started asking the question in 1992.
The shutdown is a political disaster for the Republican Party.
But here’s another poll chart from yesterday that shows the party isn’t doomed. Its candidates can be wildly popular when they don’t behave like morons bent on destruction of the economy:
That chart is from the Fairleigh Dickinson University Public Mind poll, and it shows New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) leading his Democratic challenger by 33 points.
After Superstorm Sandy hit last October, Christie’s poll numbers soared because the public liked his handling of the storm. Many people thought his numbers would fade back to “normal” as time passed. That hasn’t happened yet; he’s poised for a blowout win, even as the national Republican brand is in the toilet.
Christie’s path to sustained popularity and massive electoral success isn’t complicated.
He stands up for conservative principles when the electorate shares them. For example, he capped property taxes (New Jersey has the country’s highest) and he implemented reforms to bring public employee benefits more in line with the private sector, saving money and helping local governments deliver services better.
But when conservatives want Christie to do things that would anger his electorate, like rejecting the Medicaid expansion or snubbing the president in the aftermath of a hurricane, he refuses.
This makes him popular for two reasons. One, it means he tends to take popular policy stances. Two, he shows the electorate that he cares first about them, not his political party.
Christie’s pragmatism doesn’t just show up in policy; you can also see it in his style. He works openly and enthusiastically with Democrats. His fights with Democratic legislative leaders have often been publicly acrimonious, but they have a lot of important joint legislative accomplishments, including that property tax cap and employee benefit reforms.
Compare that to Washington where, under conservative pressure, House Speaker John Boehner swore off one-on-one negotiations with President Obama earlier this year.
Christie’s openness to Democrats has created openness to him. Dozens of local Democratic officials have endorsed him for re-election. Many polls show him drawing about a third of the black vote, an unheard of level for a Republican candidate.
The latest Fairleigh Dickinson poll shows him ahead by 8 points among non-white voters. Where else on this planet do Republican candidates win among non-whites?
I spoke with Michael Blunt, a black Democrat who has endorsed Christie. Blunt serves as mayor of Chesilhurst, a middle-class suburb of Philadelphia, which is about 50% black and gave 82% of its votes to Barack Obama in 2012.
Blunt had a simple explanation for how Christie has made inroads with black voters: “He talks to them. He makes them feel comfortable.”
Blunt said black voters particularly appreciated how closely and warmly Christie worked with Obama in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, even though he knew he would take heat from conservatives for doing so. “In the heart of a presidential campaign, he let the people of the state of New Jersey know where he stood.”
Republicans are worried about how to appeal to voters in a country that is decreasingly white. Christie has shown how much credibility Republicans can gain with black voters simply by showing respect to the president, even while disagreeing with him on a broad swath of policy issues.
This shouldn’t be hard, but for most Republican politicians, it is. Much of the party’s energy today is based on animus toward the man who happens to be the first black president. Christie is one of the few Republican politicians who understands how damaging that has been to the party’s brand.
Christie’s broad popularity hasn’t translated into a base problem within New Jersey. Republicans consistently give him approval ratings of 90% or higher. He’s made a lot of the right enemies, like teachers’ unions, and unlike Republicans in the House of Representatives, he has real conservative policy accomplishments to brag about.
Christie’s likely big win next month, when contrasted against Ken Cuccinelli’s likely loss in the Virginia governor’s race and the ongoing massive unpopularity of Republicans in Congress, should send Republicans a message about the direction they need to take the party in. The question is when they will start to listen.
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