What Christie’s victory means for the next presidential race

(CNN) — Chris Christie’s re-election as New Jersey governor was never in doubt.

And as the polls in the Garden State closed Tuesday night, CNN quickly projected that the high-profile governor with national aspirations will win a second term in Trenton.

But the big questions heading into Election Day 2013 were how large a victory Christie would capture over Barbara Buono, his little-known Democratic challenger, and how Christie would perform with voters who tend to cast ballots for Democrats.

According to CNN exit polls of New Jersey voters, Christie was winning by high double-digits, just shy of a 20-percentage point margin over Buono, a state senator.

Christie performed well with groups that normally cast ballots for Democrats.

Early exit polls indicate the GOP governor grabbing 55% of the female vote, and winning all age groups other than those 18 to 29. Christie also took one fifth of the African-American vote and half of the Latino vote, a much better performance than most Republicans in recent elections.

As expected, Christie carried 92% of Republicans, according to the exit polls, but he also won nearly two-thirds of independents and just over three in 10 Democrats in a state where Democrats and independents made up nearly three-quarters of Tuesday’s electorate.

Christie is seriously considering a run for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. The exit polls appear to bolster Christie’s case that he’s among the most electable of the potential GOP White House hopefuls heading into 2016.

The conventional wisdom was that team Christie was hoping for an impressive victory in blue-state New Jersey. Christie talked about the margin of victory earlier Tuesday.

“Christie Whitman was elected twice here and never broke 50 percent. Nobody (no Republican) since 1988 has had a 5 in front of their name in a statewide race,” Christie said in an exclusive Election Day interview with CNN anchor and chief Washington correspondent Jake Tapper.

Christie appeared to be referring to then Vice President George H.W. Bush, who grabbed 56% of the vote in New Jersey in his 1988 presidential election victory.

“My goal always in this race has been to at least get to 50% plus one, and anything above that is gravy and so I’ll be really happy with that because that’s a historical achievement — in 25 years no one has done that in New Jersey so I’ll be happy with that,” added Christie. “I suspect we may do better than that.”

Christie held leads of 36 percentage points, 28 points and 20 points over Buono among likely Garden State voters in three public opinion polls released on the eve of the election.

That had pretty much been the storyline the entire campaign, after Christie’s numbers skyrocketed late last year, thanks to his job responding to Superstorm Sandy, which caused billions of dollars in damage days before Election Day 2012.

Christie greatly outraised and outspent Buono, who received little support from national Democrats and their affiliated groups.

Christie’s political future came up numerous times during the campaign.

“I can walk and chew gum at the same time,” Christie said at one of two debates against Buono. “I can do this job and also deal with my future, and that’s exactly what I will do.”

Asked in an NBC News interview that aired last weekend whether he’s planning for a message that extends beyond New Jersey, Christie replied, “I’m not planning for it — I just think it’s inevitable.”

Christie was quickly congratulated by Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, the chairman and vice chairman of the Republican Governors Association.

“Governor Chris Christie’s overwhelming victory proves that voters are looking for confident and competent leadership. His victory also proves that Republicans can compete and win in every state,” said Jindal and Walker, in a statement.

Later this month, Christie takes over as RGA chairman, which will allow him to travel the country over the next year in support of GOP governors and gubernatorial candidates, giving an already visible potential White House hopeful even more visibility.

Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Florida and Nevada, the states that kick off the presidential primary and caucus calendar, are among the three dozen states holding elections for governor next year.

While Christie appears to be scoring a very impressive victory in New Jersey, if he runs for the GOP presidential nomination he’ll face a very different and much more conservative electorate in the Republican primaries and caucuses.

“I’m a conservative,” Christie told Tapper. “I’ve governed as a conservative in this state.”

Some on the right have criticized Christie as not being conservative enough. Add Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, a favorite of tea party activists and another likely contender for the 2016 GOP nomination, to that list.

“I think the Republican Party is a big party, and we need moderates like Chris Christie who can win in New Jersey,” Paul said Tuesday on CNN’s The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer.

“What that means about the national party, I’m not sure there’s an answer. But we do need moderates like Chris Christie in the party,” added Paul, as he accentuated his point.