What to make of Cuomo’s upstate decline

Andrew Cuomo. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)
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Last February, one month after he signed the controversial SAFE Act into law, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s poll numbers took a nose dive upstate.

According to the Siena poll, his favorable-unfavorable rating dropped from a post-Sandy high-water mark of 68-26 in December 2012 to 54-41. During that same time, Cuomo’s job approval went from 52-47 to 47-53, and the percentage of upstate voters prepared to re-elect him over an anonymous “someone else” went from 57 percent to 47 percent.

One year later, Cuomo’s upstate numbers still haven’t recovered, and after holding more or less steady, even took another slide from January to February of this year.

Still not bad for a downstate Democrat. But it seems safe to say that upstate’s love affair with Andrew Cuomo is over.

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It was probably too good to last anyway, notwithstanding the governor's bonding efforts—fishing, and snowmobiling and waxing poetic about the Adirondacks every chance he gets.

The 65 percent approval rating Cuomo enjoyed upstate just after he took office in January 2011 would have been difficult to maintain even without his first major transgression—pushing a gun control bill through the Legislature in the wake of the Newtown massacre in December 2012.

Even though the SAFE Act signaled the beginning of Cuomo’s upstate slide, it isn't entirely to blame for his failure to win back the ground he has lost.

The governor’s heavy-handed economic development policy, which lavishes attention on one upstate city—Buffalo—has turned other municipalities into jealous stepsisters.

And his recent plan to expand college education programs in state prisons has gone over very badly in conservative-leaning areas upstate, giving the Republicans choice election-year base-rallying material.

Cuomo announced his college-for-convicts proposal—for which the cost and exact payment plan remains unknown – the Sunday of Valentine’s Day weekend during an annual Albany gathering hosted by black and Latino state legislators.

Siena was in the field for a new poll that same day (Feb. 16 through Feb. 20) and Cuomo’s upstate numbers took another slide, with 50 percent of voters giving him an “unfavorable” rating, compared to 44 percent who viewed him favorably.

Siena pollster Steve Greenberg notes every political official included in that survey saw his or her numbers drop, from former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on down. So it’s not just Cuomo.

Still, it's surely disappointing to the governor, who has made such a concerted effort over the past several months to shore up his support upstate in time for his re-election.

“The other thing is, he doesn’t want to see more erosion," Greenberg said. "If he had not been doing what he’s been doing upstate, would these numbers have continued to fall, or fallen more? It’s impossible to know the answer to that question.”

Buffalo will undoubtedly be a bright spot for Cuomo on Election Day. (If it’s not, then he has wasted an awful lot of time and state revenue trying to turn things around there.) After losing Western New York to his Republican challenger, Buffalo businessman Carl Paladino, in 2010, Cuomo set about trying to win back the hearts and minds of the region’s voters. Last week, the governor was in Buffalo for the third time in 15 months to unveil a multimillion-dollar state investment as part of his “Buffalo Billion” pledge.

Cuomo has argued the area deserves special treatment after being ignored by Albany for so long. Not surprisingly, local elected officials wholeheartedly agree.

“What the governor has done is basically made up for 50 years of neglect,” Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz said during a recent interview on Time Warner Cable News’ Capital Tonight.

Poloncarz noted that Buffalo has added about 5,300 private sector jobs over the past year—more than any other upstate region—and that’s not counting the Buffalo Billion, which isn’t expected to generate jobs for another two years.

Of course, officials in equally economically desperate upstate regions don’t quite see things the way Poloncarz does.

State Sen. Tom Libous, who represents the city of Binghamton, told Gannett News Service this weekend that the Southern Tier “on occasion gets cheated” when it comes to state aid, a perception reinforced by the fact that Cuomo has yet to make a decision on fracking.

And in Syracuse, Mayor Stephanie Miner—already at odds with Cuomo, despite her position as his hand-picked state Democratic Party co-chair—rejected the idea of a new and largely state-funded sports arena in her city.

Miner said she would prefer assistance from the state with basic needs like water main repairs, after weathering some 115 of them so far this year.

A Cuomo spokesman declined to comment on the record for this story, but noted the Marist poll, which is in the field far less than Siena, found in its last survey in November 2013 that the governor had made up ground upstate. When it comes to his favorability rating, that's true, but Marist also put his job-approval rating at 49 percent, down from 58 percent in Oct. 2013.

The real question is how much any amount of erosion upstate will matter, in terms of making the election any more competitive than it's shaping up to be.

Roughly speaking, here's how the vote is likely to break down in November: Upstate will count for from 45 percent to half of the vote on Election Day, while downstate (in this case, for argument’s sake, everything south of Orange County) will make up the other half.

The suburbs north of New York City will be very much in play if, as it appears will be the case, Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino is the Republican candidate for governor.

Cuomo will get a cushion out of New York City, carry Albany and Buffalo, put in a strong enough—if not overwhelming—performance everywhere else, and win easily.

Maybe he won’t beat or even match the 65 percent of the vote his father received in the 1986 re-election, or tie the 62 percent he got himself in 2010. But it will still be good enough. And that knowledge has caused a sense of fatalism among upstaters—even those whose constituents might prefer to see someone else in office. “When it gets right dow

n to it, I don’t think anybody believes Cuomo can be beat,” said Watertown mayor Jeff Graham, a member of the state Independence Party. “So what’s the point of getting worked up about it?”

Liz Benjamin hosts "Capital Tonight" each weeknight on the Time Warner Cable News stations across upstate New York.