Look for Riptides Not Waves When The Votes Are Counted Here In NYS
Throughout the 2022 campaign here in New York State, folks keep asking me will there be a Red Wave or a Blue Wave? Admittedly, the Red Wave questions were more frequent both last Winter and more recently as some pretty interesting polling data suggesting a tightening race for Governor kept popping up, while the Blue Wave questions have faded after being asked quite a bit in August and September. My response has consistently been, I think it is smarter to keep our eyes peeled for riptides rather than partisan waves.
In fact, I think instead of a common partisan wave washing across the state, when we begin counting the votes on November 8th we will see different riptides affecting candidates from both parties differently in different regions of the state and sometimes for different offices within the same region. Now the New York Post may be right and a Red Wave may be coming to throw out Democratic incumbents across the board, but I don’t see that. I simply to do not see a linear pattern favoring either party’s prospects for victory (i.e., the difference being that a political riptide impacts a particular candidate’s footing, compared to a partisan wave that pushes and pulls all of a party’s candidates in the same direction). But I could be wrong.
Let me explain what I see and why in terms of NYS’ Gubernatorial race and the races for Congress and the State Legislature. The dynamic I see at work is simply this: both the Democratic and Republican bases are locked in. If that assessment is accurate, two critical questions come to the fore. First, who does a better job turning out their partisan base? Second, who captures what remains up for grabs among swing voters?
This year swing voters are made up of conservative Democrats, moderate Republicans (what we used to call Rockefeller Republicans) and true Independents (unaffiliated voters who do not lean consistently to one party or the other). In total, this cadre of swing voters, by my calculation, comes to about 15-20% of the electorate (at least half of whom remain undecided and another quarter could perhaps still change their minds). The peculiar characteristic in play this year is that these swing voters are cross-tugged by two competing constellations of issues: one pulls these swing voters away from the Democrats and the other constellation pulls those same voters away from the Republicans.
The constellation of issues helping the Republicans is the rise in crime, inflation and the derivative feeling of economic insecurity. The constellation of issues helping the Democrats has formed around opposition to the overturning of Roe v. Wade, support for gun safety legislation and fear of Trumpism’s assault on democracy. In September, these swing voters were focused on the latter constellation, helping the Democrats, whereas in October, these same swing voters were more focused on crime, inflation and economic uncertainty which has helped the Republicans. I believe that the last two weeks of this campaign has been and will remain a tug of war between Hochul’s Democrats and Zeldin’s Republicans for which constellation of issues these swing voters will ultimately focus on, as they finally make up their minds (in terms of absentee voting, for early voting and heading into same day voting on November 8th).
Interestingly, we can identify the riptides quite easily: crime, abortion, the latest economic news, the reaction to new disclosures about Trump re January 6th and trying to overturn the 2020 election (not to mention withholding classified documents), and broad support for common sense gun safety measures. (When the concealed permit law was passed in the wake of the Buffalo Massacre and the Supreme Court decision outlawing longstanding New York Laws re concealed permits for guns, voters in NYS supported that law by 82-15% last Summer according to the Siena Poll.) Meanwhile, what we can’t gauge with any precision is how these cross-tugged swing voters will ultimately prioritize their conflicting concerns over these two constellations of issues between and among the competing Republican and Democratic candidates.
For example, it is not beyond the pale to suggest voters could prioritize their views on abortion in congressional races, while voting with bail reform in mind in the State Senate races and be somewhere in between in the gubernatorial race. Swing voters could also break differently on Long Island but in a very different place in Central NY. So we can’t be certain where these riptides will produce upsets and/or surprise outcomes.
In the final analysis, if any late breaking events crystallize the intensity of the gaze cast on candidates by these swing voters, they could have a significant impact on swing voters. A heinous crime that captures the public imagination or an act of political violence bringing back the memories of January 6th could have an outsized impact. Let’s hope no violence mars our state or nation (before or after election day), but we can’t discount that major events could have a significant effect on these NYS races (both in the gubernatorial and the legislative contests).
My gut tells me how the candidates in each of these races close their campaigns–not just statewide but within in any given region of the state–will determine not only who wins, but the margin of victory. Consequently, which party wins that tug of war in the news cycles going into and coming out of the Halloween weekend will be quite important, especially in the gubernatorial race. Which brings us to the question of what to make of all this contradictory public polling data?
Some recent polling data is showing Hochul up by 10-11% (Siena, Marist and Civiqs), others in the 6-8% range (Emerson and Survey USA), while still others have the race closing to a dead heat within the margin of error with Hochul only ahead by 2-4% (Co/efficient, Quinnipiac and Trafalgar). This is neither the time–nor do we have the space–to fully delineate why these public polls have been so contradictory and why they have so often been so wrong in NYS going back to 1982 (i.e., when the New York Post projected a Koch blowout of Cuomo in that year’s gubernatorial primary based on their exclusive Ungar polls). The time for that analysis of the public polling’s accuracy will be a post-election analysis, when we can hand out the steel spatula awards for the pollsters who have the most egg to wipe off their faces.
The truth is a public poll, especially here in NYS, with sharply different voting patterns based upon partisanship, gender, race, religion, ethnicity and region, not to mention level of education, is only as good as the accuracy of their likely voter samples. Public pollsters blow it when their likely voter samples misrepresent the voters who actually come out to vote. In recent years, public pollsters have suffered from increasingly inaccurate sampling methodology. That has led some wags to quip that the most likely thing about a likely voter poll is that it is most likely wrong. And those mistakes have plagued both Republican and Democratic candidates.
Instead of trying to predict which of these projections from the public pollsters is accurate, here are the four factors I will be looking for when the votes are counted here in New York State:
- Will women voters account for their decades long share of being 53% of the general election vote? Or will that female share drop to 49% as the most recent Siena poll projects? Or in the wake of Roe v. Wade being overturned might younger women push the overall female share of the total vote up to 54-55% of the vote here in NYS? The higher the female share the better it will be for Hochul and the Democrats’ congressional candidates.
- Will crime and inflation be the prime driver for Independent voters in the suburbs of Upstate and Downstate or are large numbers of Independent voters also swayed by the constellation of voters helping Democrats? If crime and inflation lead to a 20% margin for Republicans among Independents, that is very good news for Zeldin and the down-ballot Republicans both for Congress and the State Legislature.
- Will voters under 30 in age cross 10% as a share of the total vote and do they break for Democrats by the 2-1 margin that determined their voting in the 2018 and the 2020 elections? Or do younger voters come in at only 6-8% as a share of the total vote and do they give Republicans over 40% of their vote? The former scenario would help Democrats, the latter would be of great help to Republicans across the board.
- Will the aggregate minority vote (Black, Hispanic, Asian and multi as well as bi-racial voters) total more or less than 31% of the statewide vote? Derivatively, if that aggregate minority share crossed 31% of the total vote, that would almost assuredly bring the NYC share of the total vote to just about a third of the statewide vote. Do those minority voters provide Democrats with a 3-1 edge over the Republicans, as they have done in NYS since 2006? Or can Zeldin win large numbers of Hispanic and Asian voters to bring the break among minority voters to closer to a 2-1 Democratic margin? If Democrats can get the minority vote close to a third of the total vote and carry it by a 3-1 or greater margin, it is hard to see Zeldin making this race close. However, if the minority vote is at only 26-27% of the total vote and Hochul’s margin is closer to 2-1 than 3-1 among minority voters then an upset is possible (for that would probably foreshadow Zeldin breaking a third of the vote from NYC).
- One caveat: historically the public pollsters–especially here in NYS–have chronically underestimated not only the size of the minority vote, but they have significantly underestimated the size of the break in the margin minority voters have provided to the candidates they favor. So I take the public pollsters’ pre-election projections with huge grains of salt on where the minority ends up, given their long track record of missing the boat on accurately projecting the results among minority voters here in NYS in both primaries and general elections (e.g., 1982, 1989, 2009, 2010, 2018 and 2022 this past June).
Thus, I am going to wait until the voters speak, before taking any of these polls seriously. My own sense, after studying all the polling data in this year’s gubernatorial race and adjusting for their strengths and weaknesses is that Hochul was up by 14-17% heading into October and that lead dropped to the 8-12% range by the third week in October and is probably at 6-9% today. This lead could tighten further depending on how this race closes, not to mention depending upon the actual turnout pattern. In brief, Hochul’s lead could just as easily grow back to crossing 10% or could shrink to under 4%, making an upset possible. My own sense is that Zeldin is closer to hitting the 30% mark he needs to crack in NYC to have a chance to win, than he is to carrying Upstate by 20% and the Suburbs by 15%, which are the three Tipping Points for any Republican to have a chance to win a two-way race for Governor (and a Republican statewide candidate must hit all three, not just one or two of those Tipping points to win).
The troubling thing for all the candidates is that events, not their campaigns, will almost assuredly be in control of the outcome going down the stretch. Although the skill with which the candidates and their campaigns react to those events will be critical heading into November 8th.
One additional factor to note about the polling data. The hard number at this stage of a race is always the incumbent’s number, not the challenger’s in the polling data. This year, whoever is not for Hochul is likely to vote for Zeldin or not to vote at all. So the spread in the polls is less significant than Hochul’s number. Hochul should not rest comfortably until her number settles in at the 54-55% range, safely above 50%. But the accuracy of the polling data depends upon whether a poll showing Hochul at 50-52% actually places her in jeopardy at 48-49% or more safely at the 54-55% level, given the margin for error in any poll. Of course, if any of these polls is predicated on a flawed sample by region, race, ethnicity, religion, gender, partisanship, or education levels, that polling data is not worth the paper it is printed out on. I am not casting aspersions on any one poll, but I am looking forward to that steel spatula post- election accounting of polling accuracy.
A quick word on the legislative races. The turnout pattern from the gubernatorial race broken down by region, will have a major impact on the down ballot races. The impact will not be classic coattails (slavish devotion to party unity). Instead, it will be a function of the predisposition of voters who come out to vote for one party or the other. If the women’s vote is powered by younger women voting against the overturning of Roe v. Wade, that will help the down ballot Democrats in the close congressional races. If, however, older swing voters are motivated to vote their frustrations on rising crime and inflation, that will help Republican candidates, perhaps with some effect in the State Senate races on LI and the Mid- Hudson and pockets all across Upstate. In effect, there will likely be riptides producing surprises in different regions of the state and possibly within regions.
So I would hesitate to predict the down ballot races for Congress and the State Legislature in NYS. Moreover, I would not just be looking at the races we know are in play for Congress (the 17th, 18th 19th and 22nd Congressional Districts, running from Westchester north through the exurbs of the Capitol District and west to Onondaga and Tompkins counties) and the State Senate (on Long Island and the Mid-Hudson). Instead, I would keep a sharp eye out for surprises in congressional races on LI and WNY and state legislative races all across Upstate.
If readers are disappointed in my failure to make hard predictions, I apologize. But my deep dive into the guts of this year’s races tells me that any prognostications ought be made with great care and deep humility. In short, I could be very wrong that riptides not waves will drive the outcomes in this year’s NYS elections. Instead of predictions, I would suggest keeping our eyes peeled for the turnout pattern (especially in regard to gender, age, race, ethnicity, region and education level and whether swing voters break sharply in a single direction or divide more evenly). Events, not ego, will be in the driver’s seat in terms of impacting the outcomes in 2022.
Bruce N. Gyory is a Democratic strategist who serves as a Senior Advisor at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips LLP, who used to teach a course in national and state voting trends as an adjunct professor of political science at the University at Albany SUNY.