IS CYNTHIA NIXON REALLY THE ONE?
There has been an almost breathless tone attending the punditry on Cynthia Nixon’s primary challenge to Governor Andrew Cuomo. Despite public polls showing Cuomo popular with Democrats particularly liberal and minority Democrats, leaving Nixon under 20 percent in a statewide primary matchup against Cuomo, many of these pundits are projecting a close race, believing that Nixon could win.
Let’s take a breath, before seriously handicapping the outcome of this primary, breaking down who votes in New York’s Statewide Democratic primaries, before exploring what voting patterns key blocs have traditionally followed.
First, turnouts in statewide primaries vary widely depending upon interest level. Low primary turnouts statewide are 600,000 votes or less out of today’s 5.62 million registered Democrats statewide. Moderate primary turnouts run at 750,000 to 900,000 voters. Large primary turnouts, usually in presidential years, comfortably rise above 1 million voters. The margins of victory are significantly impacted by turnout.
Women usually cast 56-58 percent of the primary vote, with the twin pillars being minority women from the urban cores and highly educated professional women from tonier urban and suburban communities, upstate as well as downstate. Female primary voters have always been cross tugged by regional, racial, ethnic, religious and increasingly educational factors. Consequently, this female majority rarely has voted as a unified bloc.
In terms of ideology, 30-35 percent of the Democratic primary tends to be what we now call progressive voters (the lower the overall turnout, the higher the pure progressive share). Self-described liberals are 25-30 percent of the total primary vote, while about 30 percent call themselves moderate and roughly 10 percent describe themselves as conservatives.
The pure progressive bastions are found in bohemian and gentrified urban neighborhoods (e.g., the Village, Chelsea, Prospect Park and the Upper West Side in NYC), Tompkins County (in Ithaca around Cornell), and the Hudson North region (running straight up the Hudson Valley from Putnam, Ulster and Orange Counties to the Canadian border). In Democratic primaries, unlike general elections, this small town rural and exurban vote in the Hudson Valley is very liberal.
More traditional liberals dominate the East Side of Manhattan, communities like Riverdale in the Bronx and the Suburbs of downstate, as well as those suburban towns outside the Thruway cities from Albany on to Buffalo. Therefore, moderate White Catholic, traditional liberal and Black Democrats drive primary outcomes upstate, west of the Capital District, with a splash of conservative flavor in the smaller towns and cities, along the Southern Tier, in the Mohawk Valley and in Western New York.
In terms of regionalism: 52 percent of the statewide primary vote tends to come from NYC, 30-31 percent from Upstate and 17-18 percent from the downstate Suburbs (Long Island, Westchester and Rockland). Over the last 30 years the share of the vote cast from outside NYC has grown from just over 40 percent, to just under 50 percent of the total primary vote (driven by the higher rates of voting among college educated suburban Democrats).
Within NYC, the primary vote now breaks down at 26-28 percent Black, 18-20 percent Hispanic, 17-19 percent Outer Borough Jewish, 16-20 percent New Class (the amalgam of more secular, highly educated, professional and LGBTQ, voters who are predominantly but not exclusively White voters), about 10 percent are White Catholic voters, 6-8 percent Asian and 2-3 percent multi or bi-racial voters. So within NYC there is a clear minority majority.
Meanwhile, a deeper look reveals that New York City’s primary vote is really made up of three relatively equal pools of voters: Black, Outer Borough Jewish and White Catholic and Hispanic/Asian (Hispanic and Asian voters march separately, but they usually end up supporting the same candidate), with New Class voters acting as a balance wheel.
Meanwhile, the White Catholic share rises to a full half of the Democratic primary vote in the Suburbs and casts in the low 40’s percentage wise Upstate. Campaign consultants whose experience is lodged almost exclusively in NYC politics tend to discount the crucial importance of White Catholic voters at their peril in statewide primaries.
The Black vote is about 15 percent of the Suburban vote and 20 percent Upstate (particularly significant in the cities of Poughkeepsie, Albany, Syracuse, Rochester and Buffalo) in Democratic primaries. Hispanics are about to cross into double digits of the primary vote from the Suburbs and hit 5 percent Upstate. The Jewish vote is a full quarter of the Suburban primary vote (heaviest in Nassau and Westchester) and just under 10 percent Upstate in Democratic primaries. So when you add it all up: the minority vote (the aggregate of Black, Hispanic, Asian and multi-racial voters) is about 35 percent of a low turnout statewide Democratic primary and capable of crossing the 40 percent threshold in a high turnout primary, while the Jewish vote casts just under a 20 percent share statewide.
Several patterns are worth noting. The lower the overall turnout statewide, the better a pure progressive candidate will do, especially in the Hudson North region. So given the low overall turnout, it should not really have been a surprise that Zephyr Teachout hit 34 percent of the total vote in her 2014 primary run against Cuomo.
The last pure progressive to carry a majority of the minority vote in either a statewide or NYC primary, other than DeBlasio in his 2017 re-election, was Paul O’Dwyer back in his 1973 race for City Council President of NYC. The dream of white progressive candidates carrying the minority vote, has been a largely unfulfilled dream in NYS politics (e.g., Zephyr Teachout in 2014 barely made a dent among minority voters and in 2016, Bernie Sanders lost by large margins not only in NYS, but also in California, Ohio, Georgia, Florida and NJ because he could not crack the code of winning minority and suburban women voters). This is why Mark Green was never Mayor of New York and why Bella Abzug never reached the U.S. Senate. If the day comes when White progressives and minority voters coalesce, then a new coalition will become the colossus astride Democratic primaries in NYS.
Yet, minority, Jewish and White Catholic Democrats in New York have rarely jettisoned familiar faces in primaries, who they have supported in the past, in favor of first time primary candidates. That is also one of the reasons very few Democrats have won a Statewide primary and then the general election, their first time out (Carey, Moynihan, both Cuomo’s and Spitzer lost city-wide or statewide primaries before being elected Governor or Senator in NYS). Chuck Schumer in 1998 stands as a lonely example of first time success in a major statewide primary.
As an aside, the first blunder of the primary campaign was little noticed. Cynthia Nixon called the property tax cap, “disastrous” in a recent New York Times article by Jesse McKinley. The property tax cap is the seminal issue for middle class voters outside of NYC, supported by well over 70 percent of those voters (who in turn cast 48 percent of the vote in a Democratic primary and has not been less than 70 percent of the general election vote in a gubernatorial contest for over three decades). Nixon’s opposition to the property tax cap will become an Achilles heel in her efforts to make headway outside of NYC with primary voters and were she to pull off an upset an albatross around the necks of down ballot Democratic candidates outside NYC.
I am told by reporters, that the Nixon campaign presumes that they start out with Teachout’s 34 percent locked in, and if they can crack into the minority vote from NYC, particularly Black women, Suburban women will likely follow and the worst Nixon will do is to finish on the mid 40’s, but with a real chance for an upset.
Let me offer some skepticism on just presuming the veracity of all those political postulates. If turnout is abnormally low, like 2014 it is theoretically possible for Nixon to hit the 34 percent level, but if turnout hits or surpasses 800,000 statewide, the share cast by progressives, which sustained Teachout in 2014, would be diluted (especially if the increase in turnout comes mainly from minority and White Catholic voters).
Furthermore, in 2014, Andrew Cuomo was encased in an iron triangle of his own making: trapped by the education wars which pitted him against teachers and parents (who outside NYC form in a strong pro-public education axis); green voters (so potent in the suburbs upstate, as well as downstate), were worried that Cuomo would approve fracking; and both progressive and liberal voters were frustrated at the lack of progress Cuomo had made on increasing the minimum wage as well as enacting paid family leave and reproductive health laws (e.g., codifying Roe v. Wade).
Four years later, that iron triangle which had trapped Cuomo and liberated primary voters to cast a protest vote for Teachout back in 2014, has been snapped on all three sides. The education wars are in détente, if not yet an entente cordiale, vis a vis the Governor and the teachers unions and their parent allies; Cuomo banned fracking in NYS in 2015 and has since become a leading voice opposing the Trump administration’s policies adhering to climate change denial; and Cuomo has enacted legislation securing cutting edge increases in the minimum wage and paid family leave. If, in the 2018 campaign, Cuomo trumpets his advocacy of women’s reproductive health tying it to a path for enactment, he will have completely escaped that iron triangle from 2014.
That is not to say that Nixon cannot get traction on issues like campaign finance reform and better funding and management of the MTA. Nevertheless, if Cuomo runs a positive campaign focusing on the progressive planks he has enacted, he should be in good shape. The only real jeopardy Cuomo faces would lie in his running an angry, haughty and hyper personal campaign against Cynthia Nixon (i.e., falling prey to her charge of “bullying”).
It remains an open question whether the grass roots voters in Democratic primaries are as angry at Cuomo as the grass top progressive advocates who counseled Nixon to run against Cuomo?
Finally, behind every other major upset in modern NYS Democratic primaries (e.g., Carey in 1974, Mario Cuomo in 1982 and Chuck Schumer in 1998), organized labor has played an outsized role in backing the underdog. Unlike 2014, when several major unions with seasoned and potent political operations were hostile to Cuomo (e.g., NYSUT and CSEA), in 2018, it appears that Governor Cuomo’s support amongst labor is both solid and unified. It looks like Cuomo will have a clear sweep of major labor support, buttressed by their time tested turnout muscle (e.g., NYSUT and the UFT, 1199 and 32BJ, HTC, CSEA, RWDSU, the Building Trades as well as the AFL-CIO).
My purpose here is not to cast aspersions on Cynthia Nixon’s candidacy. I respect Nixon’s intelligence and her commitment to key issues of concern to many New Yorkers. But when I overlay current polling data to the trend lines underlying the Democrats’ political demography in primaries, I don’t yet see any indication that Nixon is on the cusp of a breakout candidacy.
One of the young reporters who covers NYS politics with precision and aplomb, told me that my analysis was too wedded to the past. He asserted that we were in a new political era, when the historical norms of political gravity were no longer in effect. He thinks Cynthia Nixon has a real chance to win this primary. He may be quite right and I may be very wrong.
I made this talented reporter a gentle person’s wager. If he were correct and Nixon were able to crack even 40 percent of the primary vote against Cuomo, I would reveal his name in a column after the primary, acknowledging with praise that on March 20, 2018 he had astutely projected the outcome. If, however, my sense that Nixon would have to run a good campaign to break a defacto cap of 27 percent of the primary vote, and an excellent campaign just to approach, much less surpass Teachout’s 34 percent level of support from 2014, I would not reveal his name, but I would explain in a column, why the hurdles facing Nixon’s campaign were so high.
I will stand by that wager, although I think I just wrote the latter column in advance. But all political prognostication should be leavened with humility. For in the end, it is the voters, not the pundits who are in control of elections. After all, primary voters may see something in Nixon’s candidacy that I am missing.
I will also stipulate that in the wake of Trump’s election, the laws of political gravity have been disturbed, but I do not think they have been suspended.
Bruce N. Gyory is a political and strategic consultant at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips LLP and an adjunct professor of political science at SUNY Albany.