Protect the Vital Center
Last week brought a report from Fred Dicker in the New York Post that the well-funded anti-abortion Chiaroscuro Foundation was contemplating fomenting primaries against incumbent Republican state Senators on Long Island. This mirrored earlier rumors of Tea Party primaries next year against Mid-Hudson, Capital District and other upstate GOP Senators over insufficient action in seeking a repeal of the SAFE Act and disappointment at the failure to select an upstate Republican Majority Leader as a replacement for Dean Skelos.
Let me be clear, I am not trying to say conservatives (or progressives) do not have the right to advance their ideas. Deeply held beliefs are to be respected, even revered in a democracy. But if the Republican party is going to once again become competitive in statewide elections, not to mention carry the state Senate’s swing districts, it should not lock itself into diehard opposition to the consistently high levels of public support for gun control (averaging 60 percent support statewide for the SAFE Act), reproductive health including the codification of Roe v. Wade in state law (never below 70 percent), a significant increase in the minimum wage (consistently at or above 3-1 levels of support) and climate change (the 2014 exit poll in NYS showed 68 percent of New Yorkers believed that climate change was a serious problem and they broke for Cuomo over Astorino by 73-20 percent).
A math based analysis of NYS’s 2014 election returns reveals that both major parties failed to advance their long-term electoral agendas. Democrats need to avoid a schism taking hold along the fault lines exposed by the last year’s primary between Andrew Cuomo and Zephyr Teachout primary (moderate vs. progressive), while the Republicans cannot win statewide with a purely conservative coalition.
The path for continued Democratic success lies in growing the share of the total statewide vote cast by the state’s urban cores, especially in New York City (where the landslide Democratic margins are powered by minority and progressive white voters), while holding onto the moderate voters so critical to carrying upstate and the suburbs. The Democrats need to accomplish both objectives to remain successful.
Alternatively, Republicans cannot have any hope of winning statewide if they continue to be capped at one third of the female majority (women usually constitute 53% of the general election vote in New York) as they have in five consecutive statewide elections since 2006, while also losing the aggregate ethnic minority vote by margins exceeding four to one.
Those were the core conclusions of a memo analyzing NYS’s 2014 election returns I completed back in April and was published by City & State.
Recent events lead me to surmise that strong elements in both parties are ignoring the numbers delineated in that memo: namely, that the ideological center of the state’s electorate will determine political success.
New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio has been acting as if there is a progressive majority in the state and the nation. While, the de Blasio coalition can hold cities like New York, Albany and Rochester, it is simply not a viable template for statewide elections.
Correspondingly, moderate Democrats like Andrew Cuomo would be wrong to ignore the potency of the progressive pulse to generate turnout necessary to make sure the door doesn’t open for Republican victories. New York City has 43 percent of the state’s population, yet only 38 percent of its registered voters, and in 2014 it cast only 26 percent of the statewide vote. In 2012, 35 percent of votes came from New York City. The wisest approach for Democrats to follow is channeling progressive voices without offending the ears of moderate voters, which state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli did in 2014, leading both tickets as the only candidate hitting 60 percent of the vote while carrying all three regions of the state.
A short reminder to both major parties on where the statewide electorate sits on ideology is therefore in order. In 1970, the well-respected Yankelovich polling form did a survey for the New York Times on how New Yorker’s defined themselves philosophically. In 1970, 37 percent saw themselves as conservatives, 33 percent as moderates and 27 percent as liberals. Fast forward to the 2014 exit polls; New York’s electorate self described itself as 27 percent liberal, 29 percent conservatives and 44 percent as moderates.
New York’s liberals, have reached parity with conservatives, not because they have grown as a share of the electorate, but because the conservative pool has shrunk significantly, while moderates have dramatically grown. Could a presidential turnout increase the liberal share to say 30 percent of New York’s electorate? Yes, but moderates will still hold the dominant squares on the electoral chessboard (at least a 40 percent share), for as far as the eye can see.
The numbers are clear: New York is a Democratic, but not a liberal state. If future elections lead to Democratic standard bearers who cannot carry moderate voters, while the GOP refuses to break out from the conservative mold, then a vacuum could open at the very center of the electorate.
Whichever party does a better job at mastering this new math of New York State electoral politics, will have the whip hand into the next decade. If, however, both parties prove bull headed, resisting the equilibrium points underlying the state’s political algebra, they will be vulnerable to an updated version of Teddy Roosevelt’s Bullmoose movement—a third-way candidacy, which can not only elect a Governor but perhaps even govern effectively, precisely because he or she enjoys broad and enduring public support.
Bruce N. Gyory is a Political and Strategic Consultant at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips LLP and an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at SUNY Albany.