The Monmouth University poll released yesterday found, “Chris Christie could put New Jersey in play if he is able to win the GOP nomination and then faces off against Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton. In a hypothetical 2016 match-up, 46% of New Jersey voters say they would support Christie to 43% who would vote for Clinton. Christie garners support from 83% of Republican voters, 51% of independents, and 19% of Democrats.” This is an early poll that might actually be worth paying attention to; both candidates have effectively 100 percent name recognition and are very well known to voters. It might not mean a whole lot three years out, but it means more than the average poll listing some candidates largely unknown competing with some who won’t run.

Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie celebrates his reelection Nov. 5 in Asbury Park, N.J. (Mel Evans/Associated Press) Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie celebrates his reelection Nov. 5 in Asbury Park, N.J. (Mel Evans/Associated Press)

Now, few Republicans (I suspect not even Christie himself) think he would win New Jersey when the general election finally rolls around. However, it’s a stunning poll that builds on his runaway re-election victory. Christie, his team will argue, is unlike any of the other potential presidential nominees and can redraw the political map for Republicans. Christie wouldn’t need New Jersey to win in a presidential election, to be sure. But making Hillary Clinton spend time and money to nail down a state President Obama won by 17 points in 2012 would be an extraordinary advantage for the GOP.

Like national pundits, New Jersey voters are confident Christie will run. (“69% believe that their governor is already planning to run for president in 2016 . . . Even though a presidential campaign would require Christie to spend a great deal of time out of state, 67% of New Jerseyans wouldn’t be particularly bothered if Christie ran.”)

The challenge for Christie now is to make a campaign about more than electability and “bipartisanship.” Bipartisanship is a means to an end, and not (especially in GOP primaries) a policy goal. He will need to explain what his ability to make bipartisan deals can deliver for the conservative movement, the GOP and the country. He will use his considerable personal talents and knack for finding common ground.  . .  to do what?

His record in New Jersey suggests he’ll run as a reformer, having tangled with teachers unions, reformed benefits for state workers, balanced budgets and enacted criminal law reforms.  In 2012 Texas Gov. Rick Perry tried to run as “I was a successful governor! Vote for me!” It didn’t work, I’d suggest, for reasons that went beyond his debate shortcomings. For a governor to do this successfully he has to both widen his vision and sketch out how his agenda would work on the national level. For former Arkansas governor Bill Clinton it was “don’t stop thinking about tomorrow” — an appeal for a younger generation of leaders. Texan George W. Bush was the “reformer with results” – a call to compassionate conservatism and deliverables like better education. In each case their record was a jumping off point and validation for their leadership and serious policy outlook. Christie will need to do this — carve out a concrete agenda — to win the nomination and ultimately the presidency. His bipartisanship will be reassurance he can accomplish his agenda while his record is validation of his beliefs and seriousness. That still leaves the substance of his agenda, which should be the most important part of a race that is likely to feature a lot of skilled candidates with good records.

So Christie and his team can derive some satisfaction from an early poll. It should not however lull them into the belief that all he need do is announce, “Here I am!” That would be a fatal error.