The Governor's Race
By Susan Reefer
It's become a cliché to say that a political event has national implications. But the campaign for governor of New York really does have the potential to affect more than just New Yorkers. The office has historically been a stepping stone to the national stage. The governor of New York presides over the state that holds the nation's largest city, the nation's financial capital, over a population as diverse as any place in the world and a state gross domestic product that on its own would be among the world's ten largest economies.
That's just the background. In this year, add to that the Greek tragedy overtones of a son trying to avenge the defeat of his father and the very real tragedy the nation experienced in New York City last September.
The stakes are high in every campaign. But that has never been more apparent than in this election year.
The race this year starts out with the sitting governor, George Pataki, with a significant lead in the polls over his two potential Democratic rivals, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Andrew Cuomo and State Comptroller H. Carl McCall. It is not uncommon for an incumbent to start off with a lead in the polls, particularly with several months still to go before the election. But in a state the size of New York, the campaign for governor, by definition, does not have a prohibitive front-runner. Anything is possible.
The evidence of this is as recent as the governor's first campaign, eight years ago. Then a backbench state assemblyman, Pataki took on the unenviable task of challenging Governor Mario Cuomo, a larger-than-life figure with a national following. Cuomo was running for another term with all the name recognition and advantages and resources of incumbency. Pataki did the seemingly impossible when he defeated Cuomo on election night. It's true that 1994 was a year when national trends sent many long-term Democratic incumbents packing, but it remains a powerful reminder that no campaign is over until the votes are counted (just as the 2000 Presidential is a reminder that sometimes it's not over even then).
WHAT WILL DETERMINE THE OUTCOME OF THE ELECTION?
Issues, of course, play a key role in any campaign at any level. In a legislative race (U.S. Congress, state legislative, city council) issues play a prominent role, usually determining the majority, in most surveys about 75 percent of voters' criteria in making a choice.
In an executive race (Presidential, Governor, Mayor) the criteria is reversed. Issues are important, but more important is a factor that could be described as character, or leadership, or even personality. It includes traits like honesty, and compassion, and others that are harder to define.
And of course, there are external factors. Every campaign is conducted against a backdrop of public perceptions and current events that will inevitably affect the campaign's outcome. Issue of political ideology, regional and local concerns, and the current political climate all come into play.
New York voters make remarkably diverse choices when it comes to the political ideologies of the leaders they select. The state's two U.S. Senators are both considered liberal Democrats, while the governor is a right-of-center Republican. To further complicate matters, the ideological spectrum is skewed by geography: New York City is predominantly liberal, while upstate is more conservative. The New York City suburbs, consisting of Long Island and Westchester County, is a valuable swing block, that fluctuates each election cycle.
New York City Issues
Regional issues further change the dynamics of the campaign. Upstate voters have long felt that the economy is underdeveloped, while voters in the city often feel that not enough state funds are returned to city schools and infrastructure. Addressing the varying concerns of voters in Buffalo and Brooklyn, while trying to retain political integrity and communicate a clear message, is a challenge for any candidate.
We see that particularly this election year. New York City's rebuilding efforts will be a statewide, as well as a nationwide, focus for years to come. The question of how best to rebuild and revitalize lower Manhattan is a main theme for each of the major candidates, although all three approach the topic very differently.
Carl McCall puts an emphasis on economic recovery, with a plan to create 100,000 new jobs in the areas of financial services, biotechnology, information technology and business services. He also proposes an International Center for Commerce and Culture, designed to attract international business headquarters and make New York City the true financial capital of the world.
Andrew Cuomo sees the rebuilt downtown area as a sort of high-tech capitalist utopia: New York City cultural landmarks, a relocated World Bank, an integrated transportation system, a developed waterfront with a harbor economy, and a newly commissioned World Institute of Health, doing research while also creating a biotechnology economy.
Although both McCall and Cuomo have also indicated a desire to see a memorial included in the rebuilding effort, Governor George Pataki has taken the strongest stance in putting forth a proposal to commemorate the victims of the tragedy. Pataki, in a speech to victims' families, promised that nothing would be built in the "footsteps" of the twin towersĄthe actual ground space once occupied by the buildings themselves. He promised to support only those rebuilding proposals that set aside this hallowed ground for a memorial site.
Rebuilding efforts are not the only area in which New York City voters will see citywide policies play out in a statewide election. The state system of funding public schools has long been considered unfair to New York City public school students. A lawsuit brought against the state by an advocacy group called the Campaign for Fiscal Equity was successful in its attempt to prove that New York City schools are at a disadvantage in the current system.
Andrew Cuomo has pledged to drop the state's appeal to the lawsuit if he is elected governor. He further promises to completely overhaul the current funding system.
Cuomo also indicates he supports giving mayors of large cities control over their city's schools. This puts him in the unusual position of agreeing with George Pataki, who signed legislation giving New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg control of the New York City schools. Pataki has also promised to address the issue of school funding formulas; his program would increase funding levels statewide with targeted increases to schools with "high needs."
Carl McCall doesn't specifically emphasize the issues affecting New York City schools. He is calling for an increase in education funding statewide: an additional $8 billion in his first term. He does address the need to change the funding formula, and increase accountability, and wants to do this while cutting property taxes by $400 million statewide.
CURRENT POLITICAL CLIMATE
The climate in a campaign is crucial; this is the public sentiment that affects everything that goes on in a campaign. Sometimes it can be defined only in retrospect, but strategists and pollsters will try to predict it in time to take advantage of the implications. It includes the issues that top voter concerns, but it goes beyond that; it is a mindset, a mood, a sense of things, rather than the things themselves.
A political climate can be affected by issues, but it is defined by emotions. A higher crime rate might lead to a climate of fear, a strong economy might lead to a climate of confidence. The climate can be impatient, or complacent, or patriotic, or skeptical.
In this election year, the mood is unquestionably anxious; voters are anxious about the economy, about security, about their quality of life. How this uncertainty in voters' mind will translate into voting behavior is hard to pinpoint, but it will undoubtedly affect the election as much as any other factor.
Against this backdrop, the candidates will make their case. Each of the three major candidates will try to play up their strengths, and overcome their weaknesses, all while trying to communicate a message to an increasingly distracted and detached electorate.
In planning and crafting a campaign message, political strategists use a simple device called a message grid. It consists of what a candidate wants voters to know about himself or herself, and what the candidate wants voters to know about his or her opponent. These are basically a candidate's strengths and his opponent's weaknesses. The two Democratic opponents will have the additional task of positioning themselves to run against one another in the primary, while looking ahead to what will hopefully be a general election bid against Pataki in November.
Here is an overview of what each candidate will be facing while crafting his campaign theme:
McCall has the advantage of organization heading into the Democratic primary. On July 22nd, he picked up the endorsement of Senator Charles Schumer, a valuable ally among the Democratic rank and file. McCall also picked up the endorsement of the party at the state convention last spring. This support of party regulars is an enormous asset heading into a primary, where turnout traditionally consists of only the most loyal and interested voters. For these primary voters, knowing who the "real Democrat" is will be key in their decision.
McCall also has an important advantage over Andrew Cuomo, his primary opponent. As the state comptroller he has successfully run for statewide office before, an important indicator in predicting future electoral success. Being able to claim experience in statewide office will be an important part of his campaign theme, but having to defend a record will also give Cuomo ammunition to use against him.
While McCall does have a strong organization and the support of many key Democratic constituencies, he lags behind Andrew Cuomo in fundraising, and he has yet to achieve Cuomo's name recognition among the electorate as a whole.
Cuomo has a name that invokes a political legacy in New York, and he has high-profile experience working in Washington, D.C. for Bill Clinton, who remains very popular among Democrats nationwide. Cuomo served as Clinton's Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, a position that gives him credibility as he presses the importance of issues of affordable housing and homelessness.
Cuomo has already been on television with campaign ads touting his record, and portraying him as compassionate, progressive, intelligence, and inventive, many of the same themes that his former boss used when campaigning for President in 1992. He is campaigning "wholesale", in order to reach large numbers of voters, as though he already has the Democratic nomination; indeed, one of his main arguments to Democratic primary voters will undoubtedly be that he is the stronger candidate to face Pataki in the fall.
There is a strategic advantage in emphasizing moderate themes in a general election where the votes in play are political moderates who are turned off by extremism on either end of the spectrum. The trick is to go far enough away from the middle ground to win the nomination, and then quickly position yourself as a moderate in time for the general. Cuomo will have to convince primary voters to give him that chance, and he will have to convince them that the governor can be defeated. If Democratic voters don't really think their party can retake the governor's seat, they may opt for the ideologically pure candidate as a standard bearer.
The governor, as previously stated, is not a prohibitive front-runner. But he may be as well positioned to win a third term in November as any incumbent New York governor in recent memory. He received high marks for his leadership during the terrorist attacks last fall, and despite Cuomo's ill-advised criticism of the governor's role (perhaps taking an even more ill-advised page from Mark Green's play book), most New Yorkers gave the governor subsequent high job approval ratings.
But high job approval ratings, even those based on something so important as leadership in a time of national crisis, are not by themselves a good measure of future campaign success. The governor will have to defend his record during his eight years in office, he will have to outline a vision for the next four years and beyond, and he will have to explain why he is better than his opponent.
He will have no shortage of resources with which to communicate this message, because he has raised over $20 million for his campaign. He has an enormous fundraising advantage over both his potential Democratic rivals. In a state the size of New York, where television will play an enormous role in reaching voters, that is a crucial advantage.
Pataki also has a well-honed campaign organization, including political talent from throughout the state Republican establishment. Having the experience of two successful campaigns behind them is not enough to guarantee a third victory, but an experienced campaign team will be more successful at delivering a consistent, cohesive message.
That message will be the determining factor in the campaign. Whether Pataki ends up running against McCall or Cuomo, he will have to defend charges that he is out of touch with an upstate that is economically stagnant and in need of infrastructure, a City of New York that is economically ravaged and in need of redevelopment, and a state education system that is ineffective and in need of reform.
These are important questions to address, but based on his past campaigns, he can satisfy voters on these counts, and paint a favorable vision of the future as well. The governor will in turn portray his opponent as too liberal, and lacking in the "right kind" of experience.
There is a saying in campaign politics, that every campaign is really about the last campaign. What this means is that on some level, every candidate is trying to redeem the past, undo mistakes, win the campaign he or she didn't win the last time around, or win bigger and better this time around. In this year's race for governor, we will no doubt see this dynamic played out, as all three candidates try to avoid the mistakes and capitalize on the opportunities on the long road to Election Day.
(posted July 26, 2002)