When does Cuomo go negative on Nixon?

nixoncuomo.png

By Bradley Tusk

It’s still 22 points. That’s a big gap. But the Siena poll had Nixon down by 31 points just two weeks ago. And in March, Siena had Cuomo up by 47. Nixon has momentum, energy and excitement. She also has the press rooting for her (they’ve been sparring with Cuomo for decades so anything new and different is exciting). And because Cuomo rules by fear, when things go wrong (and they invariably do), the knives come out, so most political insiders are secretly (or even not so secretly) pulling for Nixon too.

Is Nixon really likely to fully close the gap and beat Cuomo in the primary? Probably not. The same Quinnipiac poll that had Nixon down by just 22 also had generally strong numbers for Cuomo among Democrats in favorability (71-21), job approval (73-19), having strong leadership qualities (84-15), and even honesty and trustworthiness (63-28). But the conundrum for Cuomo is what to do if the gap keeps narrowing.

Andrew Cuomo has been an integral part of New York politics for years. His dad was Governor. He served as HUD Secretary in the 1990s, often using the job as a platform to launch a run for political office in New York. He ran for Governor and lost in 2002. Ran for Attorney General and won in 2006. Ran for Governor and won in 2010 and 2014. The voters know him. That’s both good and bad.

The underlying metrics in the Q poll show that Democratic primary voters generally think well of Cuomo. The problem is, at this point in the game, there’s not that much Cuomo can do to make voters like him more. He has over $30 million in his campaign coffers, but a blitz of positive advertising isn’t going to change anyone’s view. The voters know him – and they know how they feel about him.

That means the choice for Democrats this September is whether or not they’re ready for something new. Voters can very rationally conclude that they like Cuomo (or at least think he was an effective Governor) but eight years in the Governor’s Mansion and a lifetime of power in Albany is enough. Cuomo can’t influence them through endorsements, ads or press releases. So that only leaves him with one option: going negative on Nixon.

As much as voters say they don’t like negative ads, more often than not, they work. So he could start digging up oppo on Nixon, find areas where her views or past statements conflict with what most primary voters want to hear, decry her lack of experience and just say and do everything possible to slow her momentum. That may work. Or it may backfire.

Viciously attacking a female candidate in the heart of the #metoo era is very risky (and if you’re not going to attack someone viciously enough to have an impact, don’t do it at all). It could turn female voters solidly in Nixon’s camp. It could do the same with many male voters too (most male New York Democratic primary voters are not exactly the spitting image of the Marlboro Man). And in many ways, Nixon is a lot like Trump (and Cuomo a lot like Hillary).

The normal rules of gravity didn’t apply to Trump in 2016. Negative ads didn’t matter. Bad stories didn’t matter. It all just reinforced that he was different and that was what the voters wanted. Cuomo, like Hillary, tends to think and act in very conventional, very traditional ways (both of their views forged in the 1990s heyday of triage, triangulation and spin rather than authenticity and genuine connection). If he just threatens people in his orbit to go after Nixon, that’ll get out and backfire (it already has). If he runs the typical negative attack ads, that too could backfire. But if he just sits there, she could keep closing the gap and maybe even win.

This is not a good time to be Andrew Cuomo or his political team. Absent maintaining his 22 point lead, the best case scenario is they survive a tough primary, driving the narrative that the voters were so sick of Cuomo, they almost threw him out (not a great message for someone who wants to launch a run for President a year later). Or he doesn’t survive the primary and his career ends (for now at least; he’s come back before). Or he wins by a decent margin but has to eviscerate Nixon in the process and turns off scores of voters he normally counts on. It’s a no-win situation. At the end of the day, all that matters is getting more votes than the other candidate, and that’s still what likely happens for Cuomo. But those odds keep narrowing – and his options for changing the game keep narrowing too. 

Published Thursday, May 3, 2018

Bradley Tusk