The Paladino Effect: How Carl’s ‘crazy’ shtick could save the Democrats

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Carl Paladino takes a break in Central Park. (Photo by Azi Paybarah.)
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The three most recent public polls of the New York governor's race, all conducted in the last week by independent outlets, have pegged Andrew Cuomo’s lead over Carl Paladino at six, 33 and 19 points. It's a warning, as if we needed one, against putting too much stock in polls. But it's also a neat illustration of the volatility that Paladino’s presence has introduced into the fall campaign, which was supposed to be a Spitzer ’06-like coronation for Cuomo.

Had Rick Lazio—or just about any other Republican not named Rudy—won the Republican nomination, that’s exactly what it would have been. But Paladino, in his background, appearance, style and rhetoric, is so different from what voters are accustomed to that he’s given them a reason to pay attention to a race they’d previously been fine with ignoring. It’s still nearly impossible to imagine him winning, but he’s already spooked the Cuomo campaign enough to launch a negative ad—something we never would have seen if Lazio had been the G.O.P. nominee.

Which points to an irony: Carl Paladino may well be the best thing that possibly could have happened to Cuomo’s fellow Democrats.

To understand why, you need to appreciate the unique position Cuomo was in before Paladino claimed the G.O.P. nomination: a Democrat who was coasting to a landslide victory for an open, top-tier office despite a national climate that is more poisonous to the party than in any year since 1994. This was partly due to Cuomo’s savvy P.R. exploitation of the attorney general’s office, which pushed his statewide popularity to absurd (and unsustainable) heights, and partly due to the collapse of the New York G.O.P., which effectively wrote off the governor's race.

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It seemed like Cuomo would be free to run a non-campaign campaign, one that ignored the Democratic base and focused on maintaining the goodwill of Republican-friendly voters. He wasn’t playing to win; he was playing to win big.

For his fellow Democrats, this was not a particularly helpful strategy, since none of them (with the exception of Senator Chuck Schumer, who is facing a non-competitive challenge, and whose near-universal statewide victories Cuomo can only aspire to duplicate) enjoyed the broad popularity of Cuomo. Nor were the Republicans laying down for them the way they were for Cuomo. In the races for attorney general and state comptroller, for instance, the G.O.P. recruited its most promising candidates in years: Dan Donovan and Harry Wilson.

In these down-ballot races, and in contests for Congress and the state legislature, the national climate that Cuomo seemed immune to loomed as a potentially fatal threat to Democrats. Swing voters may have seemed willing to give Cuomo a pass in the governor’s race, but they were still filled with a desire to vote against Democrats—and ready to express that desire in the other races on the November ballot.

But Paladino at least has the potential to make inroads with those angry, anti-Democratic swing voters—to convince them that, just as they’re voting for the opponents of Tom DiNapoli and Eric Schneiderman and their local Democratic congressman and state senator, they ought to vote for Andrew Cuomo’s opponent, too. And if that happens, then Cuomo will suddenly face the same imperative that his fellow Democrats have been confronting all year: expanding the November electorate to include more Democratic-friendly voters.

This is not the game Cuomo has wanted to play, since it would require him to adopt a tone and style that won’t sit well with Republican-friendly swing voters. He’s taken conspicuous aim at public employee unions, Democratic interest groups, and the Working Families Party as a means of establishing his Albany-taming credentials, and to keep these swing voters in his camp. But if it looks like there's any chance that these disaffected swing voters will defect to Paladino—who will not be outdone in the angry department—the more Cuomo will need to worry about motivating and turning out the traditional Democratic base—the kinds of voters, it just so happens, whose participation could also bail out DiNapoli, Schneiderman and the rest of the party’s down-ballot candidates.

Cuomo will only go all-out to rally the base, at the cost of the sort of comprehensive victory that leads to presidential speculation, if he concludes it’s essential. For now, all he’s done is launch one negative ad against Paladino. If the conflicting polling of the last week evens out and puts Cuomo back in a dominant position, the incentive for him to run a turnout-based campaign based on the credible threat of Governor Paladino will vanish.

And even if Cuomo is scared into waging an aggressive, confrontational campaign, it’s no guarantee it will actually rub off on other Democrats. The idea of expanding the electorate by motivating apathetic base voters is one that we hear every election from whichever candidate or party is behind. How often and to what extent this strategy ever works is hard to say. It may be that all Cuomo accomplishes by waging a “real” fall campaign is to convince the swing voters who were already going to participate not to vote for Paladino. In other words, he might be like Richard Nixon in 1972, who scored a 21-point landslide over George McGovern but had virtually no coattails.

Still, Cuomo’s fellow Democrats need all the help they can get this year, and they haven’t been getting much from their gubernatorial candidate. For them, any poll that shows Paladino gaining is good news.