The signs are everywhere: candidates on television in commercials
touting experience and credentials, volunteers at subway stops and
street corners handing out brochures, mailboxes stuffed with campaign
flyers and reminders to get out and vote.
And then, of course, there are the literal signs -- brightly colored
placards and banners and posters and billboards, all of them an effort
to keep candidate names in New York voters' minds.
It's that time of year: New York State is about to hold a primary
election, an election that will decide party nominees for races up and
down the ballot, but the most hotly contested will be the race for
This year, the Democratic primary campaign is the race to watch; the
winner of this battle will be the one to face two-term Republican
governor George Pataki in the November general election.
During this past year, the two major Democratic candidates, Carl
McCall and Andrew Cuomo, have tried to gain and keep the momentum among
Democratic primary voters. Although turnout in any primary tends to be a
small percentage of registered voters, it traditionally includes the
most loyal, involved, partisan, and active party members, those who pay
the most attention and have the most informed opinions. The battle for
the involvement, support and votes of these rank and file party members
has been politically and emotionally charged.
Every campaign has its gaffes and missteps and snags and surprises,
and this one has certainly been no exception. But as the campaign heads
into the final stretch, in the days leading up to the September 10th
primary, voters will be forced to make their choices. Campaigns can go
on for months or even years, but any campaign strategist knows that the
last two weeks before the election are the crucial days when candidates
finally have what they want the most: voters' attention.
During this short window, the two Democratic candidates will make
their case to the voters one last time and hope that theirs is the
winning message. As they gear up for this frenetic pace, for the blur of
handshaking and press events and jumping in and out of cars and on and
off of charter planes, criss-crossing the state, bleary eyed but
smiling, there is one question that they most want answered but secretly
dread being asked:
"So how do you think the campaign is going?"
They will be asked this question over and over, by reporters, by
well-meaning supporters, by contributors and family members and at the
end of each day, they will ask it of themselves. It's a good question;
in addition to knowing what a candidate stands for and what he wants to
do once elected, knowing how effective he has been at communicating that
message is a useful piece of information. The final answer, of course,
won't come until the votes are counted, but until then there are a
number of ways to gauge "how the campaign is going."
Television is a powerful tool. It reaches us where we live, where we
are relaxed and unguarded, it entertains us and informs us and keeps us
in touch with a world that is constantly changing. Candidate ads may not
be anyone's favorite thing to watch, but they are still the most
effective means of communicating a message to a mass audience.
You can tell a lot about a campaign by watching the commercials.
Every candidate strives to stay "on message", that is, to communicate
the same carefully crafted, consistent message over and over and over
again without interruption or distraction. The idea is that by election
day, the repetition will remain with voters so when they see that name
on the ballot, they will know who he is and what he stands for.
A campaign that is running the same few commercials with the same
basic message over and over again may seem boring, but chances are they
are sticking to a strategy because that strategy appears to be working.
Conversely, a campaign that runs new ads every week may be trying
different themes in a effort to gain traction.
And then there is the tone of the ads. The rule of thumb is that
candidates who are safely in the lead don't go negative, not out of a
sense of politeness or fair play, but because they don't want to take
the risk. Negative ads can increase your opponent's "negative" numbers
and drive voters away from him, but at a cost: they can increase your
own negative perception as well.
When candidates go on the attack on the air, chances are it is a
strategy to take the lead, not hang onto it.
Candidate endorsements have always been a part of campaign,
particularly in New York, where political clubs, party leaders,
organized labor and community activists make up such a big part of
political life. While endorsements in and of themselves will not
(typically) affect the outcome of the race, they can be a telling
indication of a campaign's strength.
There have been several endorsements in this Democratic primary,
including the endorsement of Carl McCall by New York's senior U.S.
Senator, Chuck Schumer. However, the two biggest potential endorsements
of the campaign have never happened: those of former President Clinton
and Senator Hillary Clinton. As Clinton's HUD Secretary, Andrew Cuomo
may have been anticipating the public support of his former boss and the
boss's wife. An expected endorsement that never happens can be as
damaging as it would have been helpful.
Not every party leader and elected official makes an endorsement in
every campaign; some elected officials actually feel it is unwise and
unstatesmanlike to take sides in party primaries. But many others who
have no such qualms will want to support, and be seen supporting, the
candidate who is ultimately going to win. The rush of endorsements
toward one candidate at the end of a campaign is a result of that
campaign's momentum, and not a cause of it.
Although many people get excited about published polling numbers,
pollsters chief among them, they are not necessarily the best indication
of how a campaign is going. The science of tracking public opinion can
be complicated, and even at its best it is inexact. The most reliable
polling numbers are those commissioned by each campaign. Because they
are a closely guarded secret, no one ever knows exactly what they show
(although if they are done well, both campaigns should have the exact
The published polls are usually those commissioned by news
organizations. While they may be completely accurate, they are usually
very simple, one or two question "flash polls": If the election were
held today, for whom would you vote?
The answers that 500 people gave to this question are interesting on
one level, but as a predictive value they may be more or less
meaningless. To be useful, a poll has to be representative, meaning the
people who participated are a cross-section of those who will actually
be voting on primary day. It has to be a measurement of voter opinion in
time, meaning it must be comparable to a similar measurement taken
before and after.
And it has to be statistically significant. This means that if a
survey shows one candidate with a four-point lead and the margin of
error is +/-5, the results are meaningless.
Even if a published survey has all these requirements, the result is
merely a snapshot, and like a snapshot it can't tell you who is moving,
or which direction they are moving, or why.
Knowing all of this, using the power of observation to mark a
candidate's chances is not a substitute for finding out who she is and
what she stands for. But it can be an important part of sorting through
the white noise of election season and making an informed choice in the
final days before the September 10th primary.
Susan Reefer is a Republican pollster and media strategist. She is based in New York City.
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