It hath been prophesied by lesser RINOs before him that there shall arise in the northeast a RINO messiah, who shall smite the true conservatives and lay waste the jerky progressives across the land. Tonight’s the night: No matter how big or small Christie’s victory is, this’ll be the springboard for centrists to argue that any guy who can turn an Obama landslide last year in a deeply Democratic state into a Republican landslide 12 months later is a guy worth rolling the dice on nationally. Just like in football, though, the only way to make a game interesting when the winner’s a foregone conclusion is to focus on the spread. What’s the difference between winning big, winning huge, and “let’s nominate the man already, dammit” victory?

RCP elections expert Sean Trende notes that only three Republicans in the last 60 years have outperformed Christie’s poll-average lead of 26 points in New Jersey, and none of those three were elected within the past 25 years. Jersey is more Democratic today, Republicans are less popular in Democratic enclaves than they used to be, and Christie is more conservative than any of his three predecessors were — and yet he’s still looking at a margin so huge, he might actually get to 60 percent of the vote. (As Christie himself is quick to note, not since 1988 has a Republican running in a statewide election cracked 50 percent.) That’s the magic number tonight for true Christie-fan triumphalism, I think. Any landslide will be touted as proof that he’s the One True RINO sent to deliver mankind from evil, but north of 60 percent will have the commentariat breathing into paper bags.

The big subplot: How well will he do with minorities? He’s winning more than 30 percent of black voters in some polls, thanks in part to his passionate support for school choice, and more than 40 percent of Latinos. This is his big selling point with the party nationally, which is why he spent so much effort over the past few months wooing minority constituents. It’s not just winning a landslide in a blue state that supposedly makes him electable in 2016, it’s winning significant segments of core Democratic groups in the process. A fun anecdote from BuzzFeed’s piece about that today:

Standing toward the back of the rally in Union City, a thin, bespectacled man wearing a tan-colored fedora and a brown overcoat tapped his cain on the ground to the rhythm of the music. He introduced himself as Señor Abreu, a 91-year-old Dominican immigrant who had been living in the U.S. for 31 years and long ago became a citizen. He said he had only ever voted for Democrats, but described Christie as a “a good man who works hard for his people… I hope he wins.”

Asked how he felt about casting his first vote for a Republican, Abreu looked confused at first, and then shook his head insistently. “No es Republicano. Es Democrata.”

Lots of tea partiers are reading that right now, thinking “Sí.” Christie’s eager to rebut the charge, telling Jake Tapper today (watch below) that he’s a conservative and, unlike unnamed others, hasn’t sought to hide it. Is that right? Read this incomplete but useful checklist of issues on which he’s tiptoed away from conservative orthodoxy. Now that he’s safely reelected, he needs to decide whether to try to rebuild some credibility on the right or, in the name of winning centrists in the general election, go full RINO for the next two years and hope that Republicans are hungry enough to win that they’ll forgive him everything and nominate him anyway. I think he’s gone too far already on gun control to backtrack on that and he’s not going to change course on immigration for fear of alienating Latinos, but maybe there’s still some pandering to the right to be had on social issues. Christie remains pro-life and opposed to gay marriage, but signing a bill that banned “conversion therapy” for gay kids and dropping an appeal of the state supreme court’s gay-marriage ruling that he was going to lose anyway mean he’s in danger of failing a social-con litmus test. Too bad, says Ramesh Ponnuru:

Cuccinelli may have hesitated because polls have shown him losing a significant number of votes to a third-party candidate running as a pro-choice libertarian. But even a lot of libertarian-leaning Republicans are willing to vote for pro-life candidates, as McDonnell’s landslide proved.

Socially conservative positions on hot-button issues don’t seem to be a deal-breaker even for the much more liberal voters of New Jersey. Christie has vetoed legislation to grant state recognition to same-sex marriage — a judge later ordered it, though Christie briefly appealed — and vetoed bills to fund Planned Parenthood five times.

He does not, however, seem obsessed by social issues: Democrats haven’t gotten much mileage out of ads saying that his priorities are different from those of voters, as they have against Cuccinelli. Christie has also avoided taking unpopular socially conservative stands on issues that aren’t live debates, and taken the occasional opportunity to soften his profile.

The contrast with Cuccinelli’s results tonight is the other talking point waiting to happen tomorrow, needless to say. I’ve heard some grassroots righties accuse establishment Republicans of outright rooting for Terry McAuliffe to win so that they can draw a contrast between Christie’s centrist landslide in Jersey with Cooch’s tea-party flameout in a much more purple state. I don’t think they’re rooting for victory — it’s always better to hold power in a state than not — but they’ll take a tea-party fizzle in Virginia as a consolation prize because it helps them make the case for 2016 that centrism, yet again, is the only way to go. Cuccinelli’s the first true-con smited in the Christie “RINO messiah” narrative.

The polls close at 8 p.m. ET. The race will be called quickly, needless to say, so all the suspense is in the final margin and the demographic breakdown in the exit polls. You can follow county-by-county results on the NYT’s elections page. Stand by for updates below. Exit question: Christie/Martinez 2016?

Update: First exit poll results are coming in at 5:30 ET. New Jersey’s blue enough that Obama’s still above water there — barely.

Update: Emphasis on “in New Jersey,” no doubt:

Update: A succinct summation from John Dickerson of why conservatives find Christie suspicious. It’s not just his heresies on various issues, it’s that he has the “wrong friends” in the donor class and the media. And this: “The overarching worry among conservatives will be that no matter what the issue, a man who makes such a fetish of his ability to work with Democrats is going to sell out conservatives in the end.”

Update: As expected, the networks call it for Christie promptly at 8 p.m. Now we wait for the margin and the exit polls.

Update: Both the NYT and CNN have exit poll data from New Jersey. You’ll notice their numbers don’t match: CNN has Christie winning 45 percent of Latinos, which is in line with his polling, while the Times has him winning just 31 percent. The reason for the discrepancy is that exits get adjusted over the course of election night as new data comes in. One of them has outdated numbers although it’s not clear which. It’ll be a few hours before we have more solid information. The NYT data does, however, have him in the ballpark of the magic 60 percent mark overall. And CNN has him winning 56 percent of women and more than 20 percent of black voters. Impressive if that’s what the final data looks like.

Update: A pithy counterargument:

Update: And a counter to the counter:

Update: How many points was Christie’s handling of the Sandy aftermath worth to him? Eight? Ten? Not only did it build support for him locally but, as Noah Glyn says, it probably discouraged more formidable Democrats from challenging him. This is the easiest (and soundest) way to discredit tonight’s victory if you’re a Christie-hater, I think: It’s impressive, but it’s based on a fluke. Everyone loved Giuliani after 9/11 too, and then he tried to parlay it into a national candidacy and it went nowhere. Christie will do better than Rudy for various reasons but he risks running into the same problem of mistaking goodwill derived from solid crisis management for broad-based national support.

Update: The NYT’s exit poll data has now been updated and it’s much more in line with CNN’s numbers. Christie’s winning 48 percent of Latinos and 20 percent of blacks now, both double-digit increases from how he did in 2009. He’s also winning … 31 percent of Democrats. If the Times’s numbers hold, he should fall just shy of 60 percent.

Update: Given how many HA readers dislike him, I don’t know whether to post the Humpbot video or the melting bunny. Maybe this one as a compromise?

Update: Good catch, and support for Ponnuru’s thesis up top:

It’s been 45 minutes since the exit polls updated but I doubt we’ll see any dramatic changes at this point. Christie will have the margins he wanted among minorities. The 2016 campaign begins tomorrow.