11:45 am Oct. 6, 2010
A conversation with NY1 political director Robert Hardt about the New York election and Western New York.
Robert Hardt: Are you there Joshie? It’s me, Margaret.
Josh Benson: Here! How was the attorney general debate? Which of those guys do you think is less enthusiastic about his party's nominee for governor?
Robert: We held no attorney general debate; we had a debate for STATE COMPTROLLER—which shows how much trouble these guys are in if even YOU aren’t paying attention. To your second question: it’s like asking who likes doing shots of Tabasco sauce less. Neither Dan Donovan nor Harry Wilson is likely excited to be sharing the ticket with Paladino but I think Wilson is more worried about it. Some of Donovan’s base on Staten Island likes Paladino and may vote for him. In Harry Wilson’s world, you can’t balance the books with a baseball bat.
Josh: I was DISTRACTED when I wrote that, OK? I watched the thing, actually. And I'm among the 17 New Yorkers who know who Tom DiNapoli and Harry Wilson are, both. I actually meant to ask whether you think Harry Wilson's feelings about Carl Paladino can possibly be much cooler than Tom DiNapoli's feelings for Andrew Cuomo, who until relatively recently was casting about for a new Democratic comptroller candidate.
Robert: I think Wilson is really concerned about Paladino hurting him in November whereas DiNapoli would just like to hit Cuomo in the head with a ball-peen hammer—while still appreciating any help he gives him at the top of ticket. So while DiNapoli loathes Cuomo on a personal front (for questioning him in the Hevesi probe and not endorsing him), it ain’t necessarily so come Election Day.
Josh: Let's talk about that for a moment! Are you a believer that Cuomo might have coattails, especially now that he seems lots more committed to an identifiably Democratic-type turnout-based campaign than he did just a few weeks ago?
Robert: In the words of Neil Diamond, I’m a believer. Well, sort of. People aren’t going to be rushing out of their homes to vote in the attorney general’s or comptroller’s races, so there will be coattails, even if they’re short. As you astutely noted, Cuomo is now trying to rev up the old Democratic base, albeit half-heartedly. People go to vote on Election Day for the big-ticket items (president, governor and mayor) and then vote for the other things on the ballot but in fewer numbers. Given that I think more people will be voting for Cuomo than Paladino, this will obviously help DiNapoli and Schneiderman. But voters in New York (and most other states) are not afraid to cross party lines when they vote for downballot candidates. The question for DiNapoli and Schneiderman is how many people will switch parties when it comes to their races. My guess is there will be some Cuomo/Donovan and Cuomo/Wilson voters—but probably not enough to swing those races to the G.O.P. But—to bang a cliché like a giant gong—it all depends on turnout. If the gubernatorial race is closer than many expect because of depressed downstate turnout, Wilson and/or Donovan could pull off an upset.
Josh: There's definitely something fascinating about the fact that Cuomo is being compelled, by virtue of drawing a general-election opponent who is not the one he expected, to save the lives of a comptroller candidate he didn't want and an attorney general candidate he didn't want.
Josh: How do you think the Paladino Effect figures into the other races? Do you think that the marginal Democratic House members are throwing themselves tiny little parties every time Paladino says something that sounds like a prelude to homicide, or tells Maggie that he's been going through Andrew Cuomo's garbage cans for scandal-refuse and then changes his story (and then changes it back again!), or announces the latest cool idea he's had for how to finally solve welfare?
Robert: I think that the Paladino effect could really matter in some Congressional races upstate and also a State Senate seat in Buffalo where two Democrats are splitting the vote. I don’t think that it matters what Paladino says or does in some areas of the state; lots of people upstate are going to vote for him no matter what. On a drive from the Buffalo airport to suburban Orchard Park on Sunday (for the Bills game), I saw dozens of Paladino lawn signs. Obviously, that’s his neck of the woods but it also shows a level of excitement and interest in the race that’s not mirrored downstate in areas that will go heavily for Cuomo. (Have you seen a single Cuomo lawn sign anywhere?) Almost no one is excited about voting for Cuomo, even though lots of people will. Usually the silent majority goes for Republicans. This year, the Dems have cornered that market.
Josh: Oh, I definitely think that's right. I think Cuomo's initial campaign strategy reflected an unjustified confidence in the level of enthusiasm for him out there. Or at least the level of enthusiasm that would translate into votes on Election Day, as opposed to people willing to say that he did a fine job as attorney general.
Josh: But that's where Paladino comes in handy. I don't think Rick Lazio would have posed a threat to Cuomo under any circumstances, but I think he might have made a better-than-expected, Bill Thompson-like showing precisely for that reason: there would not have been an awful lot of motivation for any Democrats to turn out. Now Cuomo is in a War on Extremism. He's what's standing between New York and the angry guy with the baseball bat. That might be a reason for casual Democrats and independents who aren't particularly pro-Cuomo to go out and vote for him.
Josh: But tell me more about Bills country. What's the best (realistic) case for Paladino in terms of capitalizing on the local-guy enthusiasm up there? Is it that the same people who turned out for him in the primary turn out again, plus a bunch of independents, and the reliably Democratic-voting Democrats in Buffalo proper stay home?
Robert: A lot of people in Erie County are going to show up to vote—and vote for Paladino. But that’s just one county. The question is: Will he be like Barry Goldwater in 1964, where his supporters are really energized but they’re just a really energized minority? I don’t see this as a rout like that race, or Cuomo getting Spitzer’s winning margin four years ago. The bottom line is you can’t do a daisy commercial with Paladino because he’s not carrying the nuclear football. (Ultimately, if New York elects an “extremist,” we won’t go to war with Venezuela or deport Enemies of the State.)
Robert: The Cuomo people probably want to borrow a page from that famous gubernatorial race in Louisiana between Edwin Edwards and former Klansman David Duke where people had Edwards’ bumperstickers saying: “Vote For the Crook. It's Important.” But I just don’t seeing that kind of level of fear or mobilization happening in New York. People assume that Cuomo will win and don’t really want to vote for him—which is really worrying Team Cuomo.
Josh: So in fact what Cuomo needs is more polls showing Paladino trailing by 6 percent, and fewer showing Paladino's disapproval rating at an unovercomeable 59. It's can only help so much to make scary-black-and-white ads about Paladino if no one regards it as even a remote possibility that the guy will win. So what can the Cuomo campaign actually do to heighten the sense of urgency, or to entice people to care? Anything?
Robert: I think the Cuomo people, at least with their ads, are doing the right thing: Go negative. Try to scare people a little. It will help, but it just won’t deliver a landslide. The x-factor is how much money is Paladino willing to spend from his own personal fortune and what kind of negative ads will he launch?
Josh: So about this scenario, then. Cuomo wins, but without any particularly impressive margin, and only after having run an uninspiring, undignified, thoroughly muddy campaign. Does it cost him any pretense of a mandate, thereby lessening his leverage in pressing for reform from a recalcitrant legislature? Does it force him to take a more conciliatory line toward the public unions? Does it set the tone for coverage of his administration by a press corps already chafing at his unaccommodating style?
Josh: Or is a win just a win?
Robert: I think the legislature—and most importantly, Shelly Silver—could care less if Cuomo gets 53 percentage points or 60. After all, Spitzer won handily and was almost immediately stymied in the battle over the Hevesi vacancy. And who’s to say that if the State Senate switches back to Republican control that Cuomo would want reform to be on the top of his agenda? Warren Anderson and Ralph Marino were perfect foils for Mario Cuomo for 12 years ... Who’s to say that Dean Skelos couldn’t play that role to the T?
Josh: So: short-to-nonexistent honeymoon period for the new governor and, after all the yelling, not much meaningful reform at all. Is that what we're looking at?
Robert: I hope I’m wrong but yes.