THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS OF THE 2018 DEMOCRATIC PRIMARIES
Let’s try to glean from the returns of last week’s primaries a better sense of where the Democratic Party’s electorate stands in New York State. Instead of a single lesson, these returns suggest lessons emerging as a swirl.
I see four factors worth exploring: first, the state’s electoral math; second, why pure progressives do not do as well in statewide primary races as they do in deep blue urban legislative districts; third, the chronic unreliability of public polling when it comes to predicting the voting behavior of minority voters and fourth, the continuing and real importance of editorial endorsements.
First, turnout in this year’s statewide primaries surged from just 574,350 voters in 2014, to just over 1.5 million Democrats. This will be the largest turnout of any gubernatorial primary in the state’s history and will claim third prize behind the 2008 presidential primary (1.86 million votes) and the 2016 presidential primary (1.97 million votes) for the largest turnout in the state’s history.
This surge in turnout was also marked by a significant change in the regional breakdown of the primary electorate. For the last three or four statewide primaries whether high (2016 presidential primary) or low (2014 gubernatorial primary) turnout, the regional splits were the same: 52 percent of the statewide primary vote came from NYC, 30 percent from upstate and 18 percent from the Suburbs (Suffolk, Nassau, Westchester and Rockland).
But this year the turnout explosion drove the NYC share up to 57 percent, the Upstate share down to 25 percent, while the Suburban share remained at 18 percent in the gubernatorial contest. That sharp shift in regional voting helped Cuomo as he carried NYC by 2-1 (67-33 percent) and the Suburbs by nearly 3-1 (74-26 percent), while carrying Upstate by 57-43 percent. This regional shift also tightened Hochul’s victory margin over Williams to 53-47 percent, while providing an added cushion for Tish James’ victory in the four way AG’s race.
Will the sharp increase in the city’s share of the primary electorate foreshadow a march towards regional parity in general election voting patterns? Since 1986, NYC’s share of the state electorate in gubernatorial general elections has never crossed a 30 percent share (despite the fact that NYC is now home to 43 percent of the state’s population and 39 percent of the state’s registered voters).
The seminal question becomes: will this year’s increase in voter turnout from NYC, lead towards NYC finally voting its full registration weight in general elections (which has not happened since 1974)? If this occurs, we will have a major shift in the regional equilibrium point within NYS politics.
Several lessons can be learned from this regional breakdown. One, a candidate who enjoys the support of minority voters (the aggregate of Black, Hispanic, Asian and bi-racial and multi-racial voters probably hit 40 percent of this year’s total primary vote), while sweeping White Catholic and Suburban voters won’t lose a Democratic primary in NYS. The markers for Cuomo’s coalition can be spotlighted in 3 counties: he carried by Bronx by 4-1 (83-17 percent), Staten Island (a mix of White Catholics and Black voters on the North Shore) by 3-1 (74-26 percent) and Nassau County by 78-22 percent (the classic mix of White Catholic, Jewish and minority voters).
Two, let’s also dispose of the notion that large turnout primaries benefit a candidate carving a pure progressive profile. When turnout is low, the progressive vote in NYS casts about a 35 percent share, but when turnout rises that share drops to at or just under the 30 percent level. Correspondingly, when statewide turnout is high the share cast by minority voters and Suburban White Catholics (upstate as well as downstate) increases. Cuomo’s strategy to invest in generating a large turnout across the board, was therefore most astute.
The returns comparing last week’s gubernatorial primary to the June 26th congressional primaries provide an interesting factoid. The Nixon campaign pointed to the Ocasio-Cortez victory against Crowley in the 14th CD as a harbinger for their ability to pull off an upset against Cuomo. Meanwhile, Ocasio-Cortez won with 15,897 voters over Crowley’s 11,761 (a 13 percent margin). Cuomo, however, got 39,070 to Nixon’s 11,181 for a 36 percent margin of victory in the 14th CD. In terms of raw numbers, Cuomo’s vote in the 14th CD dwarfed Ocasio-Cortez’ vote.
It seems clear that pundits have been underestimating Ocasio-Cortez’ prodigious political skills and her very smart and disciplined campaign plan for June 26th, while overestimating the pulling power of Democratic Socialism in statewide races (e.g., her endorsed candidates losing in Michigan, Delaware and New York State and by landslide margins).
The lessons that emerge from all these returns seem to be that in statewide contests where the minority and suburban votes drive the outcome, support for pure progressive candidates lags, but in deep blue urban districts for the House and State legislature, like New York’s anti-IDC State Senate primaries, progressives particularly minority female candidates do very well. Consequently, the Cuomo narrative asking voters to support experience producing results resonated side by side for voters, with the anti-IDC narrative producing outrage over Democratic Senators working with what voters saw as Trump’s GOP. Voters did not see that swirl as contradictory.
The trick for Democrats is can they find a way to keep their party united behind more traditional candidates (e.g., Feinstein in California, Whitmer in Michigan, Carper in Delaware and Cuomo in New York), without losing the energy of grass roots progressives in the deep blue urban districts (Cortez-Ocasio in NYS and Pressley in Massachusetts), in the general elections, while winning races few thought possible a year ago (e.g., Abrams in Georgia, Gillum in Florida and O’Rourke in Texas)?
Second, the Holy Grail of New York politics remains the aspiration of progressives to lead a winning coalition of white progressives and minority voters. There is a long historical legacy explaining why minority voters do not vote for White progressives in primaries. Time and again, White progressive candidates sought to jump ahead of minority candidates better established to make breakthrough races (e.g., Blumenthal with Badillo in 1973 and Abzug with Sutton in 1977 and the bitter run-off between Mark Green and Freddy Ferrer in 2001 all in NYC mayoral elections).
So when Zephyr Teachout jumped out to run for AG, that unintentionally struck an unmistakably negative chord with minority voters excited about Tish James’ candidacy for AG. At one level it is not fair to Zephyr Teachout, who had every right to run for AG, that she should suffer for the historical opportunism of Blumenthal and Abzug. Meanwhile, if white progressives want to earn the votes of minority voters, they need to prove that they will support minority candidates when the stakes are high.
Three, the Siena poll on the eve of the primary brought into sharp relief a problem that is much bigger than any one polling firm. This Siena poll of likely voters pegged the aggregate minority vote at 34 percent and projected Jumaane Williams losing by 20 percent (he lost by 6 percent) while also projecting a dead heat in the AG’s race where James would be crushed by Maloney in the Suburbs (behind by 34 to 14 percent in the poll; when she actually carried the Suburbs). This poll also showed Teachout fading into third, especially in NYC (when Teachout finished second overall by being the clear second in NYC).
Siena has a defense, their last poll had the undecided at 30 percent, so they can argue that there was a late break to James and to a lesser extent Teachout, among undecided voters, while Mahoney finished right at the 25 percent they projected him finishing. Where Siena and all the other public polls have no defense, is that for nearly four decades all the public polls have significantly underestimated, in their likely voter polling data, both the size of the minority vote and the degree to which it will break to their favored candidate, particularly when it was a minority candidate.
There is absolutely no racial motive in this double whammy of chronic error in the public polling data, but there is also no doubting its adverse impact on the ability of minority candidates to secure both favorable media coverage and to raise the campaign funds necessary to be competitive.
Pollsters should dig deep and find what is the methodological source of this deep seeded and continuing mis-measurement of the minority vote. Failing that, it is time for the media, which has made public these polls a staple of their reportage, to demand of the pollsters a corrective change in their likely voter sampling methodology and changing how they report polling data until this flaw is fixed.
But perhaps it is also time that minority political leaders demand this change from pollsters, so that this double whammy effect no longer blocks the aspirations of minority voters and the candidates they support. The minority community and its elected leaders should no longer accept this perfidy in the polling data without a call for action.
Four, it has become fashionable among political savants to discount the importance of editorial endorsements from the newspapers. They point to the declining readership levels of newspapers and they delight in citing instances where the editorial boards were all on one side and the voters on the other (e.g., Christine Quinn for Mayor of NYC in 2013).
While editorial endorsements cannot produce victory standing alone, they are still an important boost, a kind of Good Housekeeping seal of approval to and for voters. This year the editorial endorsements from newspapers mattered – a lot. Governor Cuomo receiving endorsements from: the Times, the Daily News, Newsday, the Times Union and the Buffalo Evening News, provided a vital underscoring of his implicit argument against Nixon’s candidacy – don’t discount experience in government.
In the AG’s race, the endorsement of the Times, Daily News and the Buffalo Evening News put wind in Teachout’s sails. Sadly for Teachout, she did not have the resources to either take full advantage of those endorsements. Teachout and Maloney never stopped tripping all over each other in this campaign, especially outside NYC.
Meanwhile it was Newsday’s endorsement of Tish James that probably had the greatest impact in the AG’s contest. James beat Teachout by 118,548 in NYC, but surprised everyone by carrying all four Suburban Counties (with Maloney and Teachout in a veritable dead heat for second and third places in Suffolk, Nassau, Westchester and Rockland). James carried Long Island, Newday’s home region by 15,763 votes, while carrying Westchester and Rockland by 3,433 for a total of a 19,196 vote margin in the Suburbs. I think it is fair to surmise that the Newsday endorsement was a critical factor helping James surprise everyone by carrying the Suburbs.
Finally, can anyone doubt that the Times’ endorsement of Jumaane Williams enabled him to run way ahead of Nixon and Teachout in NYC (Williams 54 – Hochul 46 percent), by combining Black and White Progressive voters, as well as doing better in Suburbs where he got 39 percent (Nixon received 26 percent of the Suburban vote). Williams received 640,530 in the LG’s primary vs. Nixon’s 511,585 votes, despite an 8 percent fall off from the vote in the gubernatorial to the LG’s race.
But here again, other editorial boards had an impact. Newsday endorsed Hochul as did the Buffalo News. Hochul won by 90,929 votes statewide and four counties outside of NYC, provided almost all of that margin: (Hochul carried Nassau and Suffolk on Long Island, her home county of Erie and Monroe County by 89,718 votes). I suspect a strong case can be made that the endorsements from Newsday and the Buffalo Evening News, helped nurture Hochul’s standing in three of those four counties.
In the end, the Nixon campaign’s postulate that the laws of gravity in Democratic primaries had changed was not a proven theorem. Gravity shifted regionally and racially, in this primary, but it shifted against, not for, the suppositions of the Nixon campaign. As it turns out the aspirations of minority voters, particularly reflected in the support of minority women for Tish James, and in voting for old allies like Andrew Cuomo, counted far more than ideology in this year’s statewide contests.
A careful study of the state’s electoral arithmetic, will enable us to once again to see past the looking glass of New York politics, to what real voters prioritize and ultimately decide.
Bruce N. Gyory is a political and strategic consultant at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips LLP and an adjunct professor of political science at SUNY Albany.