Cynthia Nixon is taking on New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who is a clear favorite to win his primary in September.
Less than 4% of governors running for reelection have lost their primary since 1970 and Cuomo holds a 66% to 19% lead over Nixon in a Siena College poll released this week but conducted before Nixon officially announced.
Still, I couldn’t help but wonder… does Nixon have a shot?
The answer is yes: She has a chance to make a strong showing (certainly better than what Siena’s poll showed) and there’s even a small chance of victory.
Cuomo had a weak primary performance in a primary four years ago. He defeated relative unknown Zephyr Teachout, but she scored a little over 33% of the vote. That’s about tied with Mary Anne Krupsak in 1978 for the strongest challenge ever to an incumbent New York governor since the primary system was established in the state in 1970. Teachout did so despite raising little money and having basically no name recognition at the beginning of the campaign. Krupsak, on the other hand, was the sitting lieutenant governor when she ran.
Nixon, of course, starts out in a very different boat. She’ll likely be able to raise a lot more money than Teachout ever did. Nixon will have better name recognition. She looks to have the support of some of New York City’s Mayor Bill de Blasio’s allies, even if not from the mayor himself (De Blasio and Cuomo have a long simmering feud). Nixon campaigned heavily for de Blasio in 2013. Having ties to him could be key because he is popular among New York City Democrats, and the city itself made up a little more than 50% of the 2016 Democratic presidential primary vote.
And keep in mind, Cuomo’s popularity is actually somewhat lower now than it was in 2014. He had a 75% favorable rating among registered Democrats in New York in July 2014. It’s 67% in the latest Siena poll.
Second, the early polling numbers don’t necessarily mean as much as you might think they do. Just 40% of New York Democrats have any opinion of Nixon at this point. (I wouldn’t be surprised if the true percentage was even lower given the way Siena asks the question.) For comparison, 92% of New York Democrats have an opinion of Cuomo right now. Cuomo’s 66% of the vote against Nixon is merely a reflection on Cuomo’s own favorable rating of 67%.
During the primary campaign don’t be surprised if Nixon gains ground and Cuomo falls as we get closer to the election.
Consider the 2006 Connecticut Senate Democratic primary. That year, Sen. Joe Lieberman held a 65% to 19% advantage over Ned Lamont just three months before the primary. (New York’s 2018 gubernatorial primary isn’t until September.) Lieberman’s 65% of the vote in the poll was nearly to the 60% of Democrats who approved of the job he was doing. Lamont, like Nixon, was a relative unknown among most of the electorate.
Lamont though began airing advertisements and picked up steam. He was able to go after Lieberman for being too conservative and for voting for the Iraq War, which was perfect for Democratic voters in a year in which they were very upset with the war and Republican President George W. Bush. Lieberman’s approval rating dropped 13 percentage points just before the primary, and Lamont’s name recognition grew by about by 40 percentage points.
The end result is Lamont won a primary by 4 points that he once trailed in by over 40 percentage points.
Now, in no way am I saying that Nixon will follow Lamont’s path to victory. But Lamont’s eventual victory is a cautionary tale for anyone who reads too much into early primary polls. It’s not crazy to think that Nixon could rally liberals (who made up 66% of 2016 primary voters) to her side given that a majority of Democrats think Cuomo is moderate or conservative. Like Lamont, she’ll probably have the help of some liberal outside groups who have been angry at Cuomo for any number of reasons, including at one time, enabling a working Republican majority in the state senate.
It is plausible that Nixon is able to win a good chunk of these liberal Democrats along with some upstate Democrats who Cuomo struggled with in 2014. Such a coalition would at least close the gap and perhaps make her competitive.
Such a path to victory isn’t likely, though those who think that a celebrity cannot win a major election, should look at who is in the White House.