Six Lessons From Last Week's Primary

Six Lessons From Last Week's Primary

Six Lessons From Last Week's Primary
September 16, 2014

Now that the dust is settling on the pundits’ snap takeaways from last week’s gubernatorial primary, let’s focus on what I like to call the “carry forwards”. I see six factors emerging from the primary that will impact November’s election and the next governor’s term.

 

#1: LIBERAL LOVE 

Bill Clinton’s old admonition is correct: Democrats need to fall in love, while Republicans tend to fall in line. Liberal Democrats have great sway in Democratic primaries.  Primary voters from what I will label the “Hudson North” region (from Rockland County north to the Canadian border through the Hudson Valley, the Capital District and on to the North Country) largely are highly educated, mostly white, a mix of relatively affluent and middle class public employees, and teachers.

These voters tend to be very liberal, especially in a low-turnout primary. They are pro-education, pro-choice, pro-green, pro-gay rights and pro-social justice. The potency of their environmentalism is often underestimated, because it does not tend to register as a top-tier issue in the polling data, but protecting and promoting that green agenda has become a bedrock base issue for Democratic primary voters (e.g., why Zephyr Teachout’s anti-fracking message resonated).

Progressives in statewide Democratic primaries tend to make up roughly 40-45 percent of the overall vote, with lower overall turnout yielding a higher ratio of liberals. These voters gravitate strongly to candidates adept at expressing their positions with eloquence and passion. This line of candidates, who pull at liberal (these days they’re called progressive) heartstrings, runs from FDR through Adlai Stevenson and JFK and on to Mario Cuomo, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

Andrew Cuomo viscerally rejects this leadership style. By temperament and inclination, this Governor Cuomo gravitates not to the philosophy of governing, but to political engineering and the architecture of governance. Or as his father famously described it, the difference between the poetry and prose of politics.

Andrew Cuomo made great strides in enacting the progressive agenda in his first term (same-sex marriage, the SAFE Act, the minimum wage increase) and he hung in there on the Women’s Equality agenda, including the reproductive health plank that calls for the codification of Roe v. Wade on the state level. But Andrew Cuomo almost never bites his lower lip letting his party’s progressive core know that he really cares about its issues.

The carry forward point is simply this, if Andrew Cuomo is to harness the progressive pulse, which is so powerful within the Democratic Party, he needs to adjust. Cuomo cannot change what he is, but he does need to change the ratio of his prose to his poetry from 90-10 to 60-40, if he is to warm liberal hearts.

 

#2: MINORITIES MATTER

Progressives can’t win statewide primaries on their own. The difference between Schneiderman winning the 2010 primary for attorney general (and for that matter de Blasio winning the New York City mayoral primary last year) and Teachout and Tim Wu losing this year, is largely that they did not crack into the minority majority, which casts 55-57 percent of the vote in the five boroughs (on its way, as a result of shifting demographics, toward a 60 percent share by the end of the decade). Cuomo and Hochul swept the minority vote not just in New York City, on Long Island, and in Westchester and Rockland counties (e.g., Newsday reports that in Nassau County, Cuomo swept 80 percent of the minority vote, whereas Teachout won only in small pockets of affluent North Shore communities), but also in Syracuse, Rochester and Buffalo.

The Hudson North region, which Teachout and Wu won in last week’s very low turnout primary (around 530,000 total votes cast vs. 1.8 million in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary), consisted overwhelmingly of highly educated, often affluent, white voters.

Going forward if progressives want to win statewide Democratic primaries they must figure out how to connect with minority voters. To use the vernacular of the 1960s, progressives must move beyond talking just to limousine liberals.

 

#3: ISSUES COUNT

With relatively little hard dollar resources, Teachout and Wu created a tri-cornered trampoline around anti-fracking, the feeling that Cuomo was too grudging on basic education aid and campaign finance reform coupled with outrage over the administration’s disbanding of the Moreland Commission. Those issues resonated with the highly educated white liberals, including public employees and teachers, who are so numerous in the Hudson North region, especially in the Capital District.

It was not a coincidence that Public Employees Federation union members became Teachout’s labor mainstay and even though we don’t have exit polling data to prove it, it seems safe to speculate NYSUT teachers and CSEA workers who live in Albany, Schenectady, Rennsaeler and Saratoga Counties voted for Teachout (e.g., the Times Union reports that Teachout received 67 percent of the vote in Saratoga County and she got 60 percent of the vote in this four county region).

The Astorino campaign has conjectured that the Hudson North region will now vote for Astorino. But if issues do count, should we really expect that Teachout’s fervently pro-choice, vehemently anti-fracking and viscerally pro-social justice supporters will vote for Astorino?  After all, Astorino is a candidate who wants to repeal the SAFE Act, deems codifying Roe v. Wade in state law as “ghastly”, opposes both an increase in the minimum wage and the DREAM Act, and has made authorizing fracking the centerpiece of his upstate platform.

If the lesson from the primary that issues count holds, come November the women’s equality platform, fracking and the minimum wage will cut sharply against Astorino, not Cuomo in both the upstate and downstate suburbs. Going forward, Astorino is weak on the issues that resonate with his supposed base—upstate—except for the SAFE Act, which is deeply unpopular in the smaller rural counties. Yet to win re-election Cuomo does not have to sweep upstate. If Cuomo prevails in Erie, Monroe and Onondaga counties, as well as in the Capital District, he will probably only carry upstate narrowly, but he will carry it nonetheless. Cuomo has the issues he needs to win back in November much of what he lost in the Hudson North region, especially in the Capital District, where moderate White Catholic voters will flock to the polls.

 

#4: BEWARE OF OPTICAL ILLUSIONS

We should not presume that the electorate in November will be driven by the same voters, issues or factors that powered last week’s low-primary turnout. In a general election, even in an off-year, turnout will surpass 4 million (somewhere between 4.1 and 4.5 million are likely to vote in November).

In regional terms, the share of the vote cast by upstate will be 45-46 percent (instead of 30 percent, as it was in last week’s Democratic primary), New York City’s share will drop from the 52 percent it made up in the primary to 30-31 percent, and the suburbs will jump to 23-25 percent after constituting only 18 percent in the primary. Women will cast 53 percent of the general election vote, instead of the 56-58 percent they accounted for in the Democratic primary.

Although the number of female voters will decrease, in New York State, the gender gap generally turns into a gender gulch in favor of the Democrats, who often carry women by margins exceeding 2 to 1. Minority voters will wind up around 30 percent of the electorate, instead of the approximately 40 percent they made up in the primary. White Catholics will move from just under a quarter of the primary vote, to just over a third of the electorate in November. The share of the vote cast by self-described liberals will decrease from just under 50 percent, as was the case in last week’s Democratic primary, to about one-third, while fewer than 35 percent of voters in the general will be self-described conservatives and around 40 percent will be self-proclaimed moderates.

So instead of progressive white liberals driving the engine in the primary, the general election car is steered by moderate white Catholic voters, particularly independents, from the roughly 70 percent of the electorate cast by voters outside New York City.

When you boil all those statistics down you quickly realize that in a gubernatorial general election, New York State is a Democratic, but not a liberal state, with a decidedly feminine hand at the wheel. New York feels liberal when compared to the nation’s center-right ideological axis, but New York State in gubernatorial years is a vital centrist state in political terms.

Consequently, county by county maps of the primary which popped up on web sites September 10th, will prove optical illusions if used as indicators to predict how the landscape will shape up on November 5th.  In the general election, many of the counties which Teachout won in the Hudson North region will vote for Cuomo, while a bunch of the smaller counties Cuomo carried in Western New York and the Western Southern Tier will likely turn against the governor. In that tradeoff, the combination of Cuomo’s overwhelming strength in the five counties of New York City, and the four suburban counties, plus Onondaga, Monroe, Erie and Albany are still likely to produce an overwhelming victory. 

In fact, what will determine if Cuomo is able to surpass the 60 percent mark in the general is probably not Rob Astorino, but whether the Green Party’s Howie Hawkins comes in at closer to 10 percent or 5 percent in the final returns.

 

#5: NEWSPAPER ENDORSEMENTS DO COUNT

Last year’s mayoral election in New York City was deceiving. Christine Quinn received the endorsements of all three major dailies, yet finished a weak third at roughly 15 percent.  Newspapers endorsements are like wind; they need the campaigns they endorse to provide a large sail with a sturdy mast to have an impact, as was the case when the New York Times gave its nod to Eric Scheiderman’s 2010 campaign for attorney general. The real truth is that newspaper editorials cannot create momentum all on their own, but they can help a campaign on the move build steam.

The underlying weakness of newspaper endorsements in New York City today is twofold: the general decline in newspaper readership and that the minority-majority in New York City does not usually take its voting cues from the big three’s editorial pages.

Nevertheless, anyone who doubted the whack of the Times was reminded last week that the old Grey Lady still packs a political punch. The Times’ editorial advising its readers to use Teachout’s candidacy as an opportunity to cast a protest vote against Cuomo legitimized her in the Times new catchment area—the Hudson North region—where highly educated and upscale while liberals read the paper online, as well as the paper’s historic spheres of influence on the West Side and East Side of Manhattan and the Brownstone belt. Certainly, the Times can take credit for Wu reaching 40 percent against Hochul.

On the flipside, strong Daily News and Newsday endorsements helped anchor Cuomo and Hochul amongst moderate Democrats in last week’s primary, particularly in the suburbs where readership is high among older Jewish and White Catholic voters. The influence of the Daily News and Newsday will likely grow in the general election.

In the final analysis, it would be just as wrong to dismiss the impact of newspaper endorsements, as it would be to over inflate their importance. They are still meaningful, just not with a majority of New York City primary voters. Unless and until these endorsements begin to resonate with minority voters, the editorial boards will have more influence upon statewide elections than in New York City contests, particularly primaries. In general elections, endorsements can still have an impact on older outer borough and suburban voters. The Times’ editorial board has shifted its historic role of speaking for the vital center voter and has now become the rallying post for liberal voters, ironically the pre-Murdoch role of the old New York Post.

 

#6: THE LESSON OF TEACHOUT

Will Zephyr Teachout be a passing shower, or, true to her middle name, become a steady rain in New York politics? Teachout showed resolve, creativity and grit during this summer’s campaign. She beat expectations and impressed the heck out of the party’s pure progressive wing.

For the moment, Teachout is not ready to win statewide office in a general election. Her potential weaknesses in a general election were largely untested (e.g., her position on Israel and her fundamental opposition to the property tax cap, which is so popular with the 70 percent of the gubernatorial vote cast outside the Big Apple). However, she clearly has potential, intelligence and high energy.

By snagging just over one-third of the primary vote, Teachout has a critical choice to make. Does she want to have a future in the Democratic Party, particularly as a candidate? If so, she should consider finding a way to bury a principled hatchet with the governor and helping the Democrats win swing seats in the Hudson North region (2 congressional races and 3 State Senate districts fit that billing) where she did so well in with primary voters.

If Teachout continues to hector the governor she can help Howie Hawkins grow toward 10 percent of the vote. Meanwhile, the Green Party today is blocking the Democrats’ practical chances of holding the Congressional seat Bill Owens is vacating in the North Country. The most recent Siena poll had Elise Stefanik, the Republican, at 46 percent, Aaron Woolf, the Democrat, at 33 percent, and the Green Party’s Matt Funiciello at 10 percent. Were Teachout to help the Democrats minimize the Green candidate, so Woolf had a real chance against Stefanik, while aiding Tkaczyk, Gipson and Wagner in their State Senate races, she could emerge as a respected and selfless kingmaker with one heck of a due bill going forward. In addition, she could combine this down ballot Democratic Party campaigning, with opposing the Legislature’s redistricting process in Proposition One to maintain her cutting-edge reform credentials.

Which path will Teachout take? Will she be a passing sun shower or a steady rain? 

In the final analysis, the lessons learned from last week’s primary are chastening for Cuomo, not devastating. A change of tone, namely a firmer and friendlier voice on liberal issues, and a sharp eye for carving out issues that marginalize Astorino, will likely yield a much better result for the governor in the general election. If come November, the governor winds up helping Democratic candidates down ballot in Congress and state Legislature races, the opinion of his persona within his party, including its progressive base, could be greatly improved.

 

Bruce N. Gyory is a political and strategic consultant at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips LLP and an adjunct professor of political science at SUNY Albany.

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Bruce N. Gyory
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