Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

How You Can Tell How They're Doing

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 governor.

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 Spots

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 same numbers).

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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