- Christie crushed his Democratic opponent in almost every demographic category
- McAuliffe stoked fears about his Republican opponent's strident conservatism
- Bad news for Christie: Polls show he would lose presidential matchup against Hillary Clinton
- In Virginia, Cuccinelli was hurt by the same tea party alliance that won him the nomination
The fact that Chris Christie rolled to a second term in New Jersey and Terry McAuliffe won in Virginia wasn't a surprise. Public opinion polls have consistently shown both men in the lead.
But the exit polls showed two very different paths to victory.
Christie steamrolled hapless Democratic nominee Barbara Buono, 60% to 39% with 80% of the vote counted, crushing her in almost every key demographic. It was the biggest victory for a GOP gubernatorial candidate in New Jersey since Tom Kean was running in the 1980s.
McAuliffe's victory was much narrower than most of the polls indicated, 48% to 46% with 98% of the vote in. He didn't win every key group -- self-described independents broke for Republican nominee Ken Cuccinelli -- but he successfully stoked fears about Cuccinelli's strident brand of conservatism in an increasingly moderate battleground state.
Let's start with New Jersey.
Christie beat his female opponent among women by 16 points. He won self-described moderates by more than 20 points. He won independents by more than 30 points. He won voters making less than $50,000. He won voters making more than $100,000.
Christie did very well for a Republican with core Democratic constituencies. He won 49% of voters between the ages of 18 and 29. He won roughly three in 10 self-described liberals. He won 50% of the Hispanic vote. And he won roughly 20% of the African-American vote.
These are all critical selling points for Republicans hungry to take back the White House in 2016.
If there's one warning sign for Christie's 2016 hopes, it's the fact that the exit polls show he would lose his home state to Hillary Clinton by four points. That doesn't fit with the narrative that he's a Republican capable of winning in blue America.
Half of New Jersey voters said Christie would make a good president. But that doesn't mean 50% of New Jersey voters would necessarily back him if he runs for the White House.
Christie will have to walk a fine line over the next couple of years, bolstering his standing among national GOP primary voters while maintaining his credibility with more independent and Democratic-leaning voters. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney couldn't do it.
As for Virginia, McAuliffe won by getting his base to the polls. Democrats were the biggest partisan voting bloc in the state, comprising 37% of the total electorate and backing the former Democratic National Committee chairman by a 93-point margin.
McAuliffe hit Cuccinelli hard during the campaign on hot button social issues like abortion, and the strategy paid off. Cuccinelli actually won among the 72% of voters who cared most about the economy or health care. But among the 20% of voters who called abortion the most important issue, McAuliffe won by 25 points, 59%-34%.
Half of Virginia voters called Cuccinelli's issue positions too conservative. Only 41% called McAuliffe's positions too liberal.
In the end, Cuccinelli was hurt by the same tea party alliance that won him the nomination at the Virginia GOP convention earlier this year. Only 28% of Virginia voters said they support the tea party movement. Forty-two percent said they oppose it, and they broke for McAuliffe by more than 70 points.
And no, Cuccinelli can't blame his loss on scandal-plagued outgoing GOP Gov. Bob McDonnell or third-party libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis.
Despite his scandals, Virginia voters said they approve of McDonnell's job performance by 11 points, 52% to 41%. And if Sarvis had not been in the race, exit polls indicate McAuliffe still would have beaten Cuccinelli by two points, 48% to 46%.