Opinion: Is it 1994 again?

History usually repeats itself and recent polling in New York state points to a worsening political climate for Democrats, including Gov. Kathy Hochul.

Recent polling suggests that Democrats, including Gov. Kathy Hochul, are facing a worsening political climate

Recent polling suggests that Democrats, including Gov. Kathy Hochul, are facing a worsening political climate Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of Gov. Kathy Hochul

An unpopular president who ran as a centrist, but veered too far to the left politically. A sense that Democrats, too, have gone too far left and lost their way. Growing concerns about the state of the economy, worries about immigration, and an uptick in crime. And waiting to pounce is an animated Republican Party moving further to the right looking to capitalize on the missteps of Democrats.

While that all rings true today, it was also true in the fall of 1994, the last time that an incumbent New York state Democratic governor was last defeated at the polls.  Nationally that year, the GOP also swept control of the House and Senate – giving them control of the House for the first time since 1954, something that looks increasingly possible again this fall.

 History does indeed repeat itself and the political winds are blowing in the same direction today. Even in deep blue parts of the state, the most recent wave of opinion research polls are showing a bad - and worsening - political climate for Democrats. 

 The new Quinnipiac University poll shows the issue of crime as the leading issue facing New York City voters, an issue that is easily (and repeatedly) weaponized against the Democrats by Republicans.

Polling data suggests that a number of Democratic seats will be lost to the GOP in traditional swing areas like Long Island, Westchester and Rockland, and in the Hudson Valley, but also perhaps in New York City itself, following the GOP’s surprisingly strong showing of support in the November 2021 mayoral elections, especially if the lines get drawn in a nonpartisan manner. And the statewide races this fall will certainly not be a walk in the park for Democrats, either. 

The most recent Siena College poll identified some worrying trends for Kathy Hochul and the Democrats – something we originally wrote about last fall. Consider some of the following points:

While 40% of general election voters would vote to reelect Kathy Hochul, 45% would prefer someone else. And while 62% of Democrats say they would vote to reelect Hochul, that is down from 72% in the Siena poll from a month ago. Latinos – the emerging swing voter group in American politics - and in New York – are equally divided, too. Sienna found 41% would vote to re-elect Hochul, while 42% would prefer someone else. And only 46% of Black voters, who Hochul needs to win by more than 90% on Election Day, are in her camp today – problems which have been documented by the New York Times.

The Siena poll is not an outlier. Indeed, a statewide poll conducted in March showed Hochul with just a 4 point lead over Lee Zeldin in the race for Governor. And the new Emerson College/Hill poll shows that if Andrew Cuomo were to enter the race for governor as an Independent, Democrats are in a dead heat against the GOP – 33% to 33%.

But beyond the concerning ballot numbers, there are underlying problems that confront Hochul and the Democrats, too.

According to the Siena Poll, 57% disapprove of the job Hochul is doing in office, while only 36% approve. And it’s easy to see why. Sienna found 69% disapprove of the job Hochul is doing on crime and 63% disapprove of the job she is doing on economic issues – the two top leading issues in the minds of voters – and issues voters will cast their ballots on this fall. And these are not just the feelings of GOP partisans who don’t like any Democrats. They exist within Hochul’s Democratic base. 

Siena found 58% of Democrats disapprove of the job she is doing on crime and 48% of Democrats disapprove of the job she is doing on economic issues. These numbers are not a surprise given that crime continues to be a leading story in the news and voters are confronting inflation and high gas prices every day in their lives.

More broadly, 52% say that the state is going in the wrong direction, and 57% say the same of the country – news that should worry every Democratic incumbent running for re-election.

It’s certainly not fair to put all the blame at the feet of Kathy Hochul. President Joe Biden is creating significant headwinds for Democrats across the country and even here in New York state. Just 51% of Democrats have a favorable opinion of Biden, according to Siena. If the president is barely positive in a Blue State, it’s not hard to imagine why Democrats are in real trouble in swing, purple states across the country and why Democrats are likely to lose control of Congress.

So, what is Hochul and the Democrats to do?

  1. The Tom Suozzi message of getting tough on crime, cutting the everyday costs for middle class families, and generally driving a message of change appears to be gaining traction with voters, even as he struggles to gain votes. Hochul will need to adopt much of the Suozzi message for the summer and fall, assuming she wins the primary. Naming Suozzi as her lieutenant governor running mate would have been a shrewd move.
  2. Hochul’s Buffalo Bill’s stadium subsidy has turned the Democrats - traditionally the party of the working class - into the party favoring redistributing taxpayer money to a Florida-based billionaire – and polls show how unfavorable her move was. At least the state may be able to get the revenue from the stadium naming rights. Hochul needs to pivot and make clear that Democrats are on the side of middle-class families working to climb out of the hole created by COVID-19. So far, that message hasn’t gotten through the fog of inflation and high gas prices.
  3. Indeed, recent Hochul ads on TV seem terribly generic and canned. She needs to pivot to something with a more compelling, engaging message, rather than a laundry list of policies. 
  4. In terms of voter targeting, Democrats need to fight to win back white, suburban women who abandoned the party in Virginia and New Jersey last fall. The likelihood that the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe Vs. Wade is a part of the message, but it needs to be matched with a message of safety and security and economic growth and revitalization. And then Hochul needs to drive a big turnout with Black voters, and fight to hold onto as many Latino voters as possible.

It’s not going to be easy. While Hochul has the benefit of time on her side, she better act quickly and decisively as she is putting New York Democrats on “shaky ground.”