What it would take for Barack Obama to lose New York, actually

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Barack Obama and Andrew Cuomo. ()
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Officially, Barack Obama is in town to attend the U.N. General Assembly meeting, and to raise a couple million bucks while he’s at it. Of course, his trip also comes just days after some of the city’s voters used a special election to send a Republican to Congress, a result that the national G.O.P. is still gloating over.

Just this morning, that Republican, Bob Turner, was given place of pride by the side of G.O.P. presidential front-runner Rick Perry at a pro-Israel press event in Manhattan. His victory was proof, the Republicans say, that even the bluest corner of America has turned on the president.

The Republicans are certainly entitled to their glee, and there’s no doubt that Obama’s meager poll numbers were a key factor in Turner’s triumph. But in a way, Obama’s visit only underscores the fact that when it comes to public opinion about the president, the Ninth Congressional District is not New York State.

Just consider where Obama spent Monday evening: a fund-raiser at the Park Avenue home of investment banker Ralph Schlosstein, in the heart of the 14th Congressional District. The “Silk Stocking” 14th was once a bastion of liberal Rockefeller Republicanism, but it’s been uniformly Democratic for a generation now. In nine reelection victories, Representative Carolyn Maloney has failed to win 70 percent of the vote only once (back in 1994), and in 2008 Obama gobbled up 78 percent in the district—even better than the 74 percent that John Kerry managed in 2004 and the 70 percent that Al Gore got in 2000.

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Now contrast this with the Queens-and-Brooklyn-based district that Turner won last week: It gave Obama just 55 percent of the vote in 2008, down from the 56 percent that Kerry earned in 2004 and the 68 percent that Gore earned there in 2000. It’s a conservative district with a Democratic heritage that has moved dramatically toward the G.O.P. since 9/11, a process that’s been accelerated by Obama’s struggles as president. It really isn’t surprising that a district with this profile would elect a Republican in an open seat House race in the current political climate.

The G.O.P.’s contention is premised on the idea that because it’s in New York City, Turner’s district must be about as liberal as the 14th. But that’s just not the case. In fact, it stands alone among the 13 districts that are either partly or entirely contained within the city as the only one in which Obama fared worse than Kerry.

NY-5: Obama 63 percent (Kerry 63)

NY-6: Obama 89 (84)

NY-7: Obama79 (74)

NY-8: Obama 74 (72)

NY-9: Obama 55 (56)

NY-10: Obama 91 (86)

NY-11: Obama 91 (86)

NY-12: Obama 86 (80)

NY-13: Obama 49 (45)

NY-14: Obama 78 (74)

NY-15: Obama 93 (90)

NY-16: Obama 95 (89)

NY-17: Obama 72 (67)

In fact, the Ninth isn’t just an outlier New York City. It’s also the only district in the entire state in which Obama performed worse than Kerry. And if you throw out four Massachusetts districts where Kerry’s 2004 numbers were inflated because of his favorite son status, NY-9 one of only four districts in the Northeast where this was the case. (The other three are in Pennsylvania).

This isn’t to say that Obama doesn’t have serious political problems, but Turner’s victory last week in what had been the “Anthony Weiner district” is a testament to how much the district itself has changed, not to any broader shift in what remains a very blue city in a very blue state. Democrats have won New York State in every presidential election since 1988, and there’s only one circumstance under which they might lose it in 2012: an epic national landslide for the G.O.P.

Here, it’s worth remembering what it takes for a Democrat to lose the state in a national election.

Jimmy Carter managed the feat in 1980, finishing three points behind Ronald Reagan (47 to 44 percent, with independent John Anderson at 7 percent). Carter was brought low by a combination of national (a miserable economy and lousy approval rating, a never-ending hostage crisis in Iran) and New York-specific (a state Democratic party that had favored Ted Kennedy during his primary challenge to Carter, serious problems with Jewish and Hispanic voters) factors. Even then, Carter still nearly won: Of the 44 states that Reagan won in his ’80 landslide, only nine were as close as New York.

There was also 1984, when Reagan again carried the state, this time by eight points over Walter Mondale. But Reagan won every state in ’84 (except Mondale’s Minnesota, were he fell 3,000 votes short). Again, New York’s result was mainly notable for how close it was in comparison with the rest of the country.

Since then, the state has gone Democratic in every presidential election, with Republicans not even putting up a fight anymore. Even as he lost 40 states nationally in 1988, Michael Dukakis won New York by four points. Bill Clinton won it by 16 and 28 in his two races, while Gore took it by 25, Kerry by 18 and Obama by 27.

As we see in the 9th District, 9/11 nudged some traditionally Democratic outer-borough and suburban areas toward the G.O.P., a big reason that George W. Bush was able to improve significantly on his statewide performance between 2000 and 2004. (The only state where he improved his share of the vote more dramatically between 2000 and 2004 was New Jersey.) Many of those voters returned to the Democratic fold in 2008, but some are apparently gone for good, as last week showed us.

Some Republicans who have been around long enough to remember New York voting Republican want to believe that the perfect storm that propelled Reagan to an Empire State win 31 years ago is brewing once again. But the situations just aren’t analogous.

Yes, the economy is rotten and Obama is in danger of losing nationally, so it stands to reason that he won’t do nearly as well here as he did four years ago. But as grim as things are, he isn’t nearly as badly wounded as Carter was. The Democratic Party is still strongly united behind him; Andrew Cuomo is not about to pull a Hugh Carey and try to organize a “Dump Obama!” movement. And no matter what Ed Koch says, the evidence just isn’t there to indicate that Obama has a special problem with Jewish voters. His numbers with Jews are down marginally, just as they are with virtually every other ethnic, demographic and ideological group.

Moreover, New York’s demographics have changed since Reagan’s day, and so have the two national parties, which are increasingly associated with distinct ideologies. The G.O.P. label was a much easier sell here a generation ago, but since the “Republican Revolution” of 1994, swing voters in New York and other Northeast states have increasingly come to see the G.O.P. as a party for religious Southerners. The 12-point jump in Clinton’s victory margin here between 1992 and 1996 is telling, especially since his national margin only increased by two points between those two elections.

So enjoy the president’s visit this week. Because the more the 2012 campaign heats up, the less we’ll be seeing of him around here.