How Andrew Cuomo spun a bad poll into political gold

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Andrew Cuomo addresses reporters. (Azi Paybarah)
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Blake Zeff

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In case you missed it, Andrew Cuomo is a political maestro.

To appreciate the level he’s operating on, consider what happened this week: The governor received what would be cataclysmic news for most politicians—a new Quinnipiac poll showing a public opinion drop of 15 percent—but was able to successfully maneuver so that the fallout was minimal, and the accepted explanation behind the nosedive was that he was merely paying a price for his bold heroism.

In so doing, he put on a clinic for politicians faced with such situations.

First, if you know a bad poll is coming, get out in front of it and manage the press and public's expectations by preparing them for the possibility in advance. This way, when the poll eventually hits, it's no surprise and barely registers. Second, and just as important, when you mention that the poll drop is likely coming, pair that warning with a reason for it, preferably one that underscores your fearless leadership and willingness to face controversy head-on.

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There's a problem here, you might be thinking. The politician isn't a fortune-teller. He or she would have to know the bad poll is coming in order to perform this maneuver. Luckily, though, the polling outfits usually cooperate. Often, when a poll is in the field, the pollster will give the elected official's team (if the politician is senior and powerful, like a governor) the courtesy of advance warning. And if the poll is showing a significant trend in either direction, the outfit will often tell the subject—either to share good news, or prepare them for the opposite.

We don't know that this is what happened ahead of the release of Cuomo’s Quinnipiac poll this week. (I left a message with Quinnipiac University Polling Institute director Mickey Carroll to see whether he gave Cuomo a heads-up and haven't heard back yet.)

But consider the circumstances. First, Cuomo tells a friendly radio interviewer on Monday that he expects his approval to drop in upcoming polls, in response to a question on the topic, and links the expected dip to his recent gun safety reform package, telling the radio host, "I know their opposition. I know they’re going to be displeased. I would expect that you’re going to see that in the poll.”

The next morning Quinnipiac reveals that Cuomo's statewide approval has indeed nosedived (albeit from a stratospheric 74 percent to a still very strong 59 percent). And headlines around the country, adopting Cuomo's explanation, attribute it to his leadership on guns.

But the poll numbers actually tell a story that is more complicated than Cuomo's preemptive version.

While it's probable that Cuomo's work on guns did have an effect, it's worth noting that the drop wasn't limited to conservatives, Republicans, and upstaters—the groups that tend to be most hostile to gun safety measures.

Cuomo did see a significant loss of support among those groups, dropping among Republicans from 68 percent in a December poll to 44 percent, and from 68 to 51 among upstate residents. But he also saw significant losses across the board. For example, his support among Democrats dropped from 82 percent to 74, and by 16 points among independents, 70 to 54. Moreover, Cuomo dropped from 80 percent to 66 in New York City, which is hardly a hotbed of N.R.A. activism, and from 74 percent to 64 percent in the suburbs. And the governor's approval fell nine points among women and 20 among men.

All of this suggests that while the gun control legislation may have played a significant role in the governor's decline, it was not the sole factor. Also, this: Even as Cuomo's approval dipped, President Obama's soared to 60 percent, at a time when Obama also pressed vocally for gun safety measures after Sandy Hook, in front of a national electorate that is overall considerably less liberal than New York's.

But the general takeaway from the Cuomo poll is that he's suffering for his principled stand on guns. The man is good.