By Bruce N. Gyory

January 10, 2018

Governor Andrew Cuomo’s State of the State message last week has been analyzed in terms of policy and as a talisman of whether or not he wants to run for President in 2020.  But it has yet to be put through the hard arithmetic of New York’s 2018 gubernatorial election.

Consequently, I will leave the policy analysis to those who truly understand policy, smart folks from all sides like E.J. McMahon, Nicole Gelinas, Gerry Benjamin, Dick Ravitch, Carol Kellermann, Ron Deutsch and Lillian Barrios-Paoli.  I will focus upon how well the Governor’s message last week positions him for re-election or whether it opens the door to a serious Republican challenge.

The perceptions of where the votes come from in gubernatorial contests is far removed from the reality.  For over three decades, at least 70 percent of the gubernatorial vote in a general election has been cast outside New York City.  During that time Upstate (everything north and west of Westchester and Rockland) has cast between 47-49 percent of the state’s general election vote (despite being only 38 percent of registered voters and 36 percent of the state’s population).

NYC’s vote has fluctuated between a 27-30 percent share of the total gubernatorial vote (despite being 43 percent of the state’s population and 39 percent of registered voters).  The downstate Suburbs (Suffolk, Nassau, Westchester and Rockland Counties) have cast 23-25 percent of the state’s gubernatorial vote (while it accounts for 21 percent of the state’s population and 23 percent of registered voters).  Roughly 70 percent of that Suburban vote hails from Long Island.

In terms of ideology, exit polls reveal that the state is just under a third each of self-described liberals and conservatives, with slightly under 40 percent of the total electorate as self-described moderates. The lower the overall gubernatorial vote, the closer the conservative share gets to one-third of the total (most gubernatorial years), whereas, the higher the vote total, when driven by millennials, the liberal share hits a full third (most presidential years).

Broken down by gender, religion and race: women are 53 percent of the gubernatorial electorate, white Catholics are at a 33-35 percent share, Jewish voters cast a 12-13 percent of the total vote, with minority voters (the aggregate of black, Hispanic, Asian and bi-racial New Yorkers) at between a 27-30 percent share in gubernatorial elections.

In terms of statewide registration, the Democrats hold an advantage of 3.4 million, but a little more than 2.9 million of that registration advantage comes from New York City.  Outside of New York City the Democrats’ registration advantage is 480,556 voters with 1,738,892 independent (unaffiliated or blank voters under New York law) voters.  Consequently, outside New York City, the balance of power lies with independent voters.

When you boil all down here is what you get.  First, New York is a Democratic, not a liberal state.  New York State feels like a liberal state because of the ideological parity, but that is only in comparison to the conservative advantage in the Midwest, Southern and Plains states.  In New York’s gubernatorial elections the swing voters are almost always moderate white Catholic women living in the suburbs, upstate as well as downstate.

Second, for a Republican to seriously compete for winning a statewide gubernatorial election, they must cross 35 percent of the vote in New York City, hit 57 percent of the suburban vote and cross 60 percent Upstate.  The Republicans have not come close to hitting any of those regional tipping points since 2002, when Pataki won a third term.  The answer is because the Republicans regularly lose the minority vote by margins exceeding 4-1, have not cracked a third of the state’s female majority in the last 6 statewide elections (3 gubernatorial and three presidential) and have not been able to consolidate support from independent voters.

Alternatively, a Democrat wins in a gubernatorial election statewide, even with NYC under voting its registration weight, if they can surpass 40 percent Upstate (Democrats actually carried Upstate in 2006 and 2010), 45 percent in the Suburbs (Democrats carried the Suburbs in 2006, 2010 and 2014), if they exceed to 70 percent of the NYC vote (Democrats got closer to 80 than 70 percent of the NYC vote in 2006, 2010 and 2014).

Given that hard math underlying gubernatorial politics, let’s assess Governor Cuomo’s State of the State Message as a political document.  He not only touched all the bases, but elegantly carefully crafted the speech’s closing refrain around the theme of E Pluribus Unum (out of many one).

The Governor’s message was astutely deferential to Upstate’s need for economic growth, meanwhile Cuomo also avoided triggering the tripwires of controversy on education and the environment (which provided Zephyr Teachout with opening to garner a third of the 2014 Democratic primary vote); Cuomo advanced strong measures around election law reform and on the criminal justice front vis a vis Bail reform, as well as the Dream Act and MWBE all of which registered positively with minority voters.  The Governor also identified quite strongly with the suburban voter’s laser like focus on property taxes, both in terms of state policy toward property taxes and the reaction to the capping of the deductibility of state and local taxes emanating from the recent federal tax cut bill.  Finally, the Governor spoke to the state’s female majority across a broad range of issues from sexual harassment, to reproductive health and paid family leave.

But for Governor Cuomo last week, it was more than check box speech making.  Unlike his father Governor Mario Cuomo, the early Governor Andrew Cuomo did not gravitate to polishing the prose in his speeches until he produced poetry.

But last week, Andrew Cuomo eschewed his old tactic of going almost hoarse, screaming out his peroration.  Instead, Andrew Cuomo put the time into crafting a polished cadence for his close, centered around the theme of New Yorkers coming together as one.  He did it in a way which captured the mood among the broad mass of New Yorkers who do not like President Trump’s style or substance.  Cuomo’s rhetorical flourish centered on a simple request: all Trump had to do was turn around to read the inscription on the rug in the oval office.  Cuomo delivered this peroration, in a soft not a loud voice and it garnered the Governor the warmest editorial he has received in years from the New York Times.  As important as that editorial was, that was not the enduring significance of his message.

Going back to Theodore Roosevelt, New York Republicans have always constructed a more moderate Republican brand tapered for New York State.  That was as true of TR with McKinley, as it was for Dewey’s contrast with Taft, and Rockefeller vis a vis Goldwater and even Pataki with George W. Bush.  In each instance, successful GOP Governors in NYS knew they needed to raid the Democratic base to win election.  But in the absence of any statewide elected Republican since Pataki in 2002, New York’s GOP today is being defined by Trump’s Tea Party brands, rendering the successful raiding of Democratic pillars (e.g., white Catholic, Jewish and Hispanic voters) suspect at best and a pipe dream at worst.

In last week’s speech, Cuomo spotlighted that Republican brand’s clash with the core of New York’s electorate.  By opposing Trump with such clarity, Cuomo’s message resonated not just with progressive voters in NYC, but in the suburbs, upstate and downstate, where independents and moderate Republicans are such a vibrant political force.

In the final analysis, the time Andrew Cuomo spent ending a long speech with an understated, almost prayerful, yet potent, eloquence was time well spent.  Capturing liberal hearts with phrasing which persuasively whispered into the ears of moderate independents in the state’s suburbs, was more than a rhetorical technique.  It served as a shield, making the mission of any Republican, hitting those vital tipping points for victory in November, far more difficult.

Alternatively, I do not think the Republicans are dead in NYS, instead I think New York’s GOP must learn to pick their spots as they have in state’s like Massachusetts (Romney and Baker) and Maryland (Hogan) with pitch perfect gubernatorial candidates, capable of at once fostering and pouncing upon Democratic divisions while consolidating support from independent voters, in order to win gubernatorial elections.

I will leave it to the serious students of policy and our state’s erudite editorial boards to gauge how well or poorly to grade Governor Cuomo’s State of the State Message and the Executive Budget coming next week on substance.  But when it comes to grading last week’s State of the State Message, Governor Cuomo, passed every test of New York’s political arithmetic and hence, has left the GOP with few if any openings.

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