Cuomo’s vulnerabilities heading into the primary

Andrew Cuomo standing in front of the Mario Cuomo Bridge
Andrew Cuomo standing in front of the Mario Cuomo Bridge
Mike Groll/Office of the Governor
Gov. Andrew Cuomo stands in front of the Governor Mario M. Cuomo Bridge.

Cuomo’s vulnerabilities heading into the primary

Polls show a commanding lead, but Nixon could still make it interesting.
September 11, 2018

With just one day to go before voters cast their ballots in the Sept. 13 gubernatorial primary, Gov. Andrew Cuomo appears positioned to trounce Cynthia Nixon – but appearances can be deceiving.

Cuomo has a 41-point lead in the latest poll and a wide lead in fundraising, but, on closer inspection, Nixon could do better Thursday’s vote than expected. While a Nixon victory appears very unlikely, last-minute controversies surrounding the opening of the Gov. Mario M. Cuomo Bridge and a mailer to Jewish voters suggesting Nixon is anti-Semitic could haunt Cuomo and show that he is not without his own vulnerabilities. Here are the three biggest:

The risks of complacency

Insurgent candidates can benefit from an incumbents lack of urgency. By running to Cuomo’s left in the primary by promoting issues such as universal rent control, Medicare-for-all and marijuana legalization, Nixon hopes to stir up the same mix of educated and young voters that have been energized by other insurgent candidates such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Cuomo has tacked left in hopes that he can inspire a similar level of excitement among his supporters.

“The key for the governor is making sure that on a Thursday primary, a day that voters are not necessarily used to voting, that he gets his supporters to the polls,” Siena pollster Steven Greenberg said in a telephone interview. “It’s still going to be a low-turnout election.”

If Nixon can muster a higher turnout on her behalf compared to Cuomo, then she might be able to exceed expectations.

Veteran political operative Bob Shrum remembers a time when the polls showed an incumbent well ahead before a New York primary, but the challenger’s more enthusiastic support swayed the outcome. The year was 1980 and Democratic presidential contender Ted Kennedy appeared on the ropes in his challenge against President Jimmy Carter. Kennedy was down by about 20 points in the polls, but “you could sense it on the ground the crowds that Kennedy was getting,” Shrum said in a telephone interview.

A landslide victory for Carter in the Illinois primary that year made some voters think Kennedy’s campaign was done, so they began to think of the New York primary as a referendum on the president, The Washington Post reported at the time. And by registering their displeasure with the incumbent, voters revived Kennedy’s campaign by giving him an 18-point win.

A similar dynamic could repeat itself in 2018. “This idea that he’s going to win could be a factor in people saying, ‘I don’t need to go in on Thursday,’” political consultant Michael Dawidziak said in a telephone interview.

A Siena College Poll released on Sept. 10 gives Cuomo supporters plenty of reasons to stay home. He leads likely Democratic voters by 41 points over Nixon, with leads ranging from 20 to 77 points across all geographic, racial and gender categories.

But primaries also present unique problems in polling compared to general elections because voting patterns are more erratic, according to political consultant Scott Levenson. “There’s no way to predetermine who the electorate will be and that’s why certain local races you have huge challenges in predicting results," he said.

If voters think that Cuomo is going to win by a landslide, many of them might stay home, while inspiring a higher turnout among Nixon supporters rallied by a last-ditch effort to salvage her candidacy. “I would say it’s unlikely, but upsets happen in sports and politics,” Dawidziak said. “That’s why we play the game and why we have elections.”

Allegations of dirty tricks

The planned opening of the Governor Mario M. Cuomo bridge to replace the old Tappan Zee Bridge between Westchester and Rockland counties was supposed to bolster Cuomo’s image as a can-do governor, but a last-minute delay changed that narrative. The New York Times reported that the Cuomo administration offered incentives for the contractor to finish the job before the primary, and Cuomo’s insistence that the state does not control the Tappan Zee contrasts with his self-presentation as an effective and engaged manager.

A mailer from the state Democratic Party that suggested that Nixon is anti-Semitic also backfired for Cuomo. The mailer had charged that she had been “silent on the rise of anti-Semitism” and attempted to link her to the ongoing movement to boycott Israel. Supporters rallied to Nixon’s defense by pointing to the shoddy basis of the mailer’s accusations and the fact that Nixon – who is not herself Jewish – is raising two Jewish sons from a previous relationship. The Times, which endorsed Cuomo, called the mailer “a disgrace,” and Randi Weingarten, a Cuomo supporter whose wife is the rabbi at a synagogue that Nixon attends, said the notion that Nixon is anti-Semitic is a “baseless lie,” New York Magazine reported. Cuomo’s effort to defuse the controversy by claiming that he knew nothing about it did not convince critics who noted the hold he has on the party apparatus.

Some primary voters might be inspired by the controversies to hit Cuomo with “a ”rolled up newspaper across the nose” by voting for Nixon, according to political consultant Bill Cunningham, who worked in the past for Gov. Mario Cuomo. They might not think she can win, but a vote for her might convince be a warning to Cuomo to clean up his act. “Sometimes primary voting is all about sending a message,” Cunningham added.

The anti-Trump moment

While Cuomo has inveighed against President Donald Trump’s policies repeatedly, the anti-Trump wave of progressive engagement has created a disconnect between Cuomo’s record, which is fairly moderate, and the feisty attitude of the current Democratic base. Meanwhile, corruption in Albany and voters’ frustration with it have not subsided. Cuomo came into office eight years ago promising to reform the state government. By now, his failure to do so creates a liability among voters on the left. Dealing with state corruption was the only issue that likely Democratic primary voters saw Nixon doing a better job on than Cuomo in the Sept. 10 Siena poll, 42-39 percent. Cuomo’s inability to win voters over on the issue – and only a slight 2-point lead on “advancing progressive issues” - are the only two areas where the poll shows Cuomo looking vulnerable.

Thus far, Nixon has not taken full advantage of the opportunities she has had to point out the discrepancies between them, according to Dawidziak. She could have brought up his failure to address gerrymandering, an issue that Cuomo ran on in 2010. Ethics reforms and “the fact that all of these sexual harassment are being handled by panels by men in Albany” also show Cuomo’s weaknesses, Dawidziak said. “I just think that there’s been a lot of missed opportunities.”

Cuomo’s advocacy for same-sex marriage, gun control and other progressive causes might bolster him against Nixon. And progressives may not be as powerful in a statewide primary as in certain districts. “The new voices that we’ve seen rising up in places around the country, it’s a question whether they’re a statewide force or just concentrated in some urban areas” Cunningham said.

Political observers say that turnout is an overriding factor, but if damaging stories continue to come out about Cuomo, whether concerning the bridge, the mailer or other issues, “it’s likely to affect at the margins the spread,” said Levenson. “But for the most part the governor has done what he needs to do in this race.”

But that does not mean that a 41-point lead is enough to give Cuomo the victory that he wants. “It might be closer than he prefers, or the polls could be right for a change, but usually when they have spreads this big, things collapse down,” Cunningham said.

Zach Williams
is a staff reporter at City & State and its sister publication, New York Nonprofit Media.