NY Primary

by Bradley Tusk and Michaela Balderston


What are the last minute factors that will influence the New York primary results?

 We could say that this has been a weird election cycle in New York, but the reality is, pretty much every election cycle, everywhere, is weird lately. That’s what makes politics interesting. But Thursday’s New York primary is certainly no different. The headline matchup is Governor Andrew Cuomo, a two-term incumbent (and textbook politician) vs. actor and activist Cynthia Nixon. Monday’s Siena College poll had Cuomo up by 41 points, by a margin of 63-22. That’s a very big lead. It’s also probably very inaccurate.

Here are the three factors we think will ultimately determine both the outcome and the margin of victory.

(1) Is the polling ever right in 2018?

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Traditional polls keep showing mainstream incumbent Democrats handily beating their progressive challengers. Dana Balter: Down in the polls by 13% and won by 25%. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: Down by 36%. Won by 15%. Andrew Gillum: Polling at 16%. Got 34%. Ayanna Pressley: Down by 13%. Won by 18%. Part of it is methodology. 2/3 of the voters polled by Siena, for example, are over the age of 65 since it’s much harder to reach younger voters who don’t even have landlines. While we may not be able to rely on polling for this Thursday’s race, new polling firms like Change Research are catching on to voter’s behavior, using internet questionnaires to assess public opinion, rather than relying on phone calls. 

Part of it is enthusiasm – it’s hard for anyone to get that excited about voting for Andrew Cuomo to a third term, but Nixon’s supporters are passionate about their candidate and her new agenda. If we should take anything away from the elections happening in the Trump era, it’s that voters want change. It’s hard to imagine Siena being off by 41 points, but it’s equally hard to imagine Cuomo winning by nearly that much. So what we think we know may have little to do with what actually happens.

 (2). Last minute bad press

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Cuomo got hit with two really bad stories in the final days leading up to the election: a mailer sent by the State Democratic Party (which Cuomo controls) falsely accusing Nixon of anti-Semitism and reports that Team Cuomo rushed the opening of the new Mario Cuomo bridge (the former Tappan Zee), ignoring structural safety concerns so the ribbon cutting could take place before the primary. Cuomo immediately disavowed knowledge of either bad deed, but many reporters, knowing Cuomo’s history (both the ignomious anti-gay slur during the race he ran for his dad in 1977 and a general practice of always putting politics first), aren’t buying it. None of it is material enough to change the outcome, but the ongoing coverage probably both adds to the protest vote and voter’s negative perception of Cuomo.

(3) Weird timing and weirder weather

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Because the second Tuesday of the month fell on Rosh Hashana, the primary was pushed back two days to September 13. That’s a Thursday. Elections never happen on Thursdays. What this means for turnout is unclear. On one hand, Cuomo benefits from a low turnout race. On the other hand, some regular voters may not show up on a Thursday while motivated voters (i.e. Nixon voters) probably still will. And then there’s Hurricane Florence. According to the meteorologists, Florence is expected to make landfall on Thursday in the Carolinas. It’s not going to hit New York on primary day, but the weather pattern could result in heavy rain across the state. That too impacts turnout.

What does this all ultimately mean? It’s hard to see Cuomo blowing a 41-point lead and it’s hard to see the polling being quite that wrong. It’s hard to see the bridge and mailer scandals being bad enough to materially impact the vote. And it’s hard to see bad weather and a weird day of the week fundamentally altering the nature of the outcome either.

No matter the date, the weather or the polls, one thing we are pretty confident in is that we’ll probably never see a tried and true politician like Andrew Cuomo again. The progressive tides are moving in Nixon’s direction (more and more politicians like Jumaane Williams, Alexandra Biaggi and Jessica Ramos are stepping up to challenge the status quo). While she may not win the battle, she may very well win the war.

So if we had to guess, something like 57-43 is where this lands. But this is politics. And it’s 2018. So your guess is as good as ours.

Bradley Tusk