New Yorkers head to the polls today to determine which candidates would advance to November's general election for the state's governor. As of writing, the winners have not be determined; if you read this on Wednesday, you know that the winner of the Democratic nomination was incumbent Gov. Andrew Cuomo. (We reserve the right to change this, if something very unexpected happens.)
The reason Cuomo was able to/will be able to withstand the unexpectedly energetic challenge from wonderfully named college professor Zephyr Teachout is three-fold. First, he's the incumbent Democratic governor of Democratic New York. Second, he made a deal with the powerful Working Families party to secure their endorsement. And, third, New York's midterm-oriented gubernatorial election cycle favors less progressive candidates.
There are two New Yorks, as you may be aware. There's New York City, four counties that are so solidly blue and so heavily populated that they themselves swing any number of elections. Then there is every other county in the state -- including New York City's Richmond County, a.k.a Staten Island -- which is more a shade of lavender than midnight blue, and much more sparsely populated. In 2012, for example, Barack Obama won the upstate counties (as they're rather inaccurately called) (at least by me) with almost 55 percent of the vote. But New York City, including Richmond County, backed Obama at over 80 percent. According to data from April of this year, 37 percent of upstate's 7.2 million voters are Democrats. (Over 1.6 million didn't indicate a party.) In New York City, 68.7 percent of the 4.6 million voters are Democrats.
But this isn't the reelection race of Barack Obama. This is a primary race for an incumbent that -- coverage of Teachout and her running mate, Timothy Wu notwithstanding -- isn't on the tips of everyone's tongues. We did our best to figure out what this electorate might look like in hopes of better explaining why Tuesday's election works to Cuomo's advantage.
(Allow us a moment to point out that the state of New York's online election results system is completely terrible. Most data is available only as a PDF; of the two Excel spreadsheets that we downloaded, one was stamped as dangerous by the application once opened. This probably doesn't affect you, dear reader, but why have the ability to complain publicly about bad government services and not use it?)
Overcoming that hurdle, we were able to pull data on a series of past elections to determine the extent to which the off-year elections favor more conservative candidates. By any national standard, Cuomo is hardly conservative, but he's embraced more moderate policies during his tenure, which explains, in part, the energy behind Teachout in the New York City area at least.
Here are the vote totals in nine races: the biggest Democratic primary in 2002, 2006, and 2010; the general election in those midterm years; and the general election in presidential years. Not unexpectedly, the vote totals in midterms are lower than in presidentials. Not surprisingly, the vote totals in primaries are lower still.
There are some vagaries to this approach. Cuomo ran essentially unopposed in 2010 (it was complicated), so we used vote totals from the Attorney General's race. (New York doesn't have readily available total vote counts, of course.) It's three primaries and three midterms, which isn't a whole lot. (New York's online records only go back to 1994, and primary data only starts in 2002, of course.)
Regardless, the available data suggests three things, particularly when you look at the percentage of the vote that came from upstate.
In 2006, the percentage of the vote that came from upstate in the Democratic primary grew over that same percentage in 2002, passing 50 percent. In 2010, it grew again, passing 66 percent. As explained in this report, New York City turnout generally trails the rest of the state, making that 2002 vote -- in which a sacrificial lamb was chosen to face popular Gov. George Pataki (R) -- seem like an outlier. In midterm general elections, much more of the vote comes from upstate, especially compared to presidential elections.
All of that suggests that the Tuesday vote is likely to be 1) a majority from upstate where 2) voters are more conservative. Only Democrats can vote in the Democratic primary, but Cuomo has another advantage: He's not seen as being beholden to "downstate" interests. (Which is a euphemism for New York City.) In an interview with Teachout's running mate earlier this week, the Buffalo News framed that factor fairly well. "An upstate-downstate clash for lieutenant governor," it declared, noting that of eight questions posed to Wu about the upstate/western New York region, he only answered two correctly. Teachout-Wu is the downstate, liberal ticket. Cuomo is not.
What if the election were held in 2016, you might ask, pitting Zephyr Teachout against Cuomo with Hillary Clinton battling, say, Sen. Rand Paul at the top of the ticket? What then? Well, who knows. That's not where were are. Which, we will note, Andrew Cuomo certainly knew as he was making the decisions over his first term that gave him a more moderate reputation.