How is the Democratic primary playing out in Western New York?

How is the Democratic primary playing out in Western New York?

April 6, 2016

As the New York primary draws nearer, both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are working feverishly to shore up their bases of support in the state. Clinton has been traveling the state, making appearances in neighborhoods and cities with sizable black populations – a demographic she has overwhelmingly fared well with – while Sanders held a raucous rally in the Bronx, with another in Manhattan planned ahead of the April 14 debate in Brooklyn.

Clinton is also taking advantage of her sizable surrogacy in the state, as well as the popularity of her husband, former President Bill Clinton, who made an appearance in Buffalo on Tuesday to rally Hillary supporters.

Justin Sondel, City & State’s Buffalo reporter, covered that event, and I threw a few questions his way to gauge the mood on the ground in a city where – much like New York City – the vast majority of the Democratic establishment has pledged to support Hillary Clinton.

Here’s our exchange below:

Nick Powell: It seems like Bill Clinton’s rally for Hillary in Buffalo went over well – I believe you described the supporters as “rowdy” – I’m curious what the demographics of the crowd were: old/young? White/black? Mixed? Were there any vocal Bernie supporters disrupting the event or was security pretty tight?

Justin Sondel: It was a pretty good mix, though I would say the crowd was predominantly white. There were people with union swag on, people in suits, younger adults in beanies and Air Force Ones and a number of kids there with their parents as well. There were a handful of protestors outside and I saw at least one man holding a Bernie sign. However, inside the rally the only disruption I noticed was one woman, who I couldn’t see, screaming what sounded like “she’s a liar.” Her yelling was quickly drowned out by chants of “we want Bill” and that was the end of it.

NP: Hillary has fared very well with black voters during the primary campaign, and judging by her appearances around New York recently – visiting black strongholds in Rochester, Syracuse and New York City – she is counting on a strong performance with that demographic. Roughly 40 percent of Buffalo is black – can you gauge the perception of how some of these voters view Hillary vs. Bernie? 

JS: I have no polling data on this, but I think it’s hard to say for sure at this point. Hillary, as well as Bill, has always done very well with African-American voters and there isn’t any clear sign that things will be different this time around. However, Sanders has a message that has been resonating with the demographic, and has picked up endorsements from some cultural icons in the African-American community – Killer Mike, Dr. Cornel West. Meanwhile, Clinton’s lead on Sanders in the state has been slipping in the most recent polls. Still, Hillary’s long-standing track record with the demographic gives her a big advantage in the bid for the African-American vote.

NP: The Sanders campaign has said that they think his messaging against foreign trade deals and income inequality will resonate in areas upstate that were hit hard by the recession – like Buffalo. Conversely, Buffalo is a union town, and Hillary has scored a plethora of labor endorsements. Are the union turnout operations in Buffalo strong enough to effectively counter Sanders’ populist message? 

JS: Buffalo and other upstate cities have long had strong union support with turn-out-the-vote machines that are experienced, organized and effective. The Clinton campaign will certainly have an advantage with that apparatus working in her favor.

NP: Obviously national elections are a different beast, but in your experience covering local elections in Buffalo, how much does establishment support from unions, elected officials, editorial pages, etc., reflect voter tendencies?

JS: As a result of gerrymandering the districts have become pretty predictable, and all the players know that. As a result, you won’t often see any interest groups spending significant  money on a race in a district unless they have a particularly weak opponent or a strong candidate with a lot of crossover appeal. So, when it comes to national politics, the results are also fairly predictable. The cities and first-ring suburbs are solidly blue, while second-ring suburbs generally go red and rural areas almost always got to Republicans. 

NP: What would you say are the national issues that matter most to Buffalo/Western New York residents? It sounds like Bill highlighted infrastructure investments and college affordability at the rally yesterday – is that consistent with what you’ve seen or heard in recent months and years? 

JS: In Western New York the number one issue has been jobs for decades. Like most of the rust belt, quality jobs were so plentiful in the first half of the 20th century you could quit in the morning and have a new gig in the afternoon. In recent decades those opportunities have all but dried up, and so any policy that can bring high paying jobs with benefits to the area is going to resonate with a broad swath of the electorate. Infrastructure programs will certainly be popular, as not only do they help working-class people, they will also help the business community. The student loan policy resonates with younger people, but won’t have nearly as wide a reach as any programs that put people back to work.