New York Election Preview

NY State Government: Week in Review

Bruce Gyory is a senior advisor in the government and regulatory practice in the firm's Albany office. He is a frequent thought leader and commentator on New York elections. Bruce has served three governors of New York, two as a senior advisor. He is also an adjunct professor of political science at the University of Albany, focusing on national and state voting trends. Below, Bruce assesses factors that could impact the outcome of New York’s upcoming midterm elections.

Throughout this 2022 midterm New York gubernatorial campaign, the common question has been whether there will there be a Red Wave or a Blue Wave. My response to this mix of inquiries from reporters, pundits, politicians and elected officials has been uniform: Riptides are more likely than partisan waves. Moreover, these riptides are likely to unsettle both Democratic and Republican candidates depending on the region, but perhaps even within a region depending on the office sought. In short, there is not likely to be linear pattern for which party’s candidates win (i.e., the difference between a riptide that impacts a particular candidate’s footing, compared to a wave that pushes and pulls all of a party’s candidates in the same direction).

This preelection analysis is intended to serve as a fact-based lens through which to better understand what is happening and why in these crucial elections for Governor, U.S. Senate, State Comptroller and State Attorney General, as well as the congressional and state legislative races in New York State. It is not intended to make hard predictions related to the outcome of races but to try to assess the most likely factors driving the anticipated outcomes.

We can generally identify which riptides will likely affect voting patterns in New York, but we cannot tell with any precision how those riptides will impact the candidates’ electoral prospects in individual races. Both the Democratic and Republican bases are fairly united behind their party’s candidates, from the top of the ticket to the bottom of the ticket. Meanwhile, there are about 10% of conservative Democrats who may be swing voters and about 15% of moderate Republicans who may be so. Independent voters, who are the balance of power outside of New York City (NYC), are therefore expected to determine the outcome of many races. However, because Democrats enjoy a substantial voter registration advantage in NYC (roughly 3 million more Democrats than Republicans) and a narrow registration advantage upstate and in the suburbs (a sea change from 40 years ago, when the Republicans had a large voter registration advantage outside of NYC), in order for Republican candidates to win statewide (as well as in swing legislative districts) they have to sweep Independent voters and secure some Democratic defections (usually aimed at specific racial, ethnic and religious blocs).

Right now, truly Independent voters (those not leaning sharply to one party or the other) and weak partisan voters (in the aggregate, those voters are between 15% and 20% of the state electorate) are being pulled by each party’s candidates. The rise in crime in NYC and cities like Rochester, Buffalo and Albany; gang violence problems on Long Island; and the rise in inflation and stock market losses related to the rise in interest rates by the Federal Reserve Board are pulling Independents and weak partisan voters away from the Democrats. At the same time, the overturning of Roe v. Wade by the U.S. Supreme Court, the gun violence coming out of the racially motivated killings in Buffalo, the threat to democracy highlighted by the January 6 hearings and the classified document investigation of former President Donald Trump are pushing Independents and weak partisan voters away from Republican candidates.

The polling data looked favorable for Republicans from March through May, when voters were focused on crime, inflation and economic uncertainty, but shifted toward the Democrats in New York State and nationally when the focus shifted to abortion and what many voters perceive as the threat to democracy. Right now, however, the media focus has shifted back toward crime and inflation, and that has reraised Republicans’ hopes. In reality, the last month of this campaign will be a partisan scrum over which of these riptide issue constellations—rising crime and inflation or the medley of abortion, gun safety and the threat to democracy—will drive not just each party’s base but also the shift among Independents and weak partisan voters. Notably, in the past ten to 15 years, Independents have not split their votes evenly, instead breaking sharply in one direction (against Republicans in 2006, 2008, 2018 and 2020) or the other (against Democrats in 2009, 2014, 2016 and 2021). This ricochet effect among Independent voters has been determined by what political scientists call the “salience factor”: in any given year, which issues resonate or find salience with voters.

The public polling data, for the most part, has clearly and sharply favored the Democrats since Labor Day, but there is some turbulence and uncertainty in the air. Not to mention, some polls must be way off (e.g., a SurveyMonkey poll showed Governor Kathy Hochul up by 24% in mid-September, while a Trafalgar poll showed her ahead by only 2% in early October). Clearly, some of these polls are completely wrong. It will be interesting to see which polling data proves accurate. To be accurate in measuring the current electorate, a poll must have a sample that gets most of the following factors correct: the level of turnout and the relative shares according to partisanship, race, ethnicity, religion, gender, and generational and, increasingly, educational levels. That is no mean achievement to correctly capture all of those factors in a single polling sample (i.e., the voters asked for their responses by a pollster). Consequently, do not be surprised by the divergence in the polling data leading up to Election Day.

Having said that, what should you look for when trying to analyze this election? To defeat Governor Hochul, Rep. Lee Zeldin will need a lot to break his way. It doesn’t help him that his fellow statewide running mates against U.S. Senator Charles Schumer, State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli and Attorney General Tish James, are relatively unknown. In effect, Zeldin is functionally carrying the full load himself, as the Republican ticket is not really pressuring any of the other statewide Democratic incumbents. Do not be taken in by public polling data showing Governor Hochul way up, however. The hard number in the polling data for a general election is the percentage for the incumbent, not the challenger’s percentage. Will the closing polls show Governor Hochul comfortably over 50% or dropping under 50%? The difference in the result will be significant. On the other hand, public polling has a track record for underestimating the size and break in the minority and younger voters for the Democratic candidate, even in midterm elections. Thus, if a final poll shows Governor Hochul at 50%–52%, but the sample undercuts key Democratic voting blocs, then do not be surprised if Governor Hochul’s actual percentage winds up at 55% or more. In brief, take all public polling with multiple grains of salt—perhaps even a whole carton of Morton’s salt—due to probable sampling deficiencies.

There is some hard political arithmetic you can and should focus on. To win a two-way race, a Republican like Zeldin must carry upstate by 20% (60%-40%), sweep the suburbs (Long Island, and Westchester and Rockland counties) by about 15%, and in NYC capture a percentage of the vote equal to its share of the total vote (if NYC casts 31% of the statewide vote, the Republican candidate has to carry at least 31% of the vote from NYC to have a chance of winning). Most important, the Republican has to hit all three of those regional tipping points, not just one or two of them, to be in a position to win. So when recent polls show Zeldin ahead by only 1%–3% in the Hudson Valley and in Central New York and functionally tied on Long Island, it suggests that Zeldin has more work to do to truly prevail.

At the same time, were I part of the Hochul campaign, I would be concerned that this race could easily close to a 5% margin by Halloween from the 15% lead the Governor enjoyed in the late September and early October public polling. To be clear: If the race tightened that much by the end of October, the outcome could be in doubt. My sense is this race is teetering between a solid Governor Hochul win and a potentially close contest, and we do not yet know which way the race will land.

I will remain true to my word: I will not predict the outcome or the margin. Instead, I will advise you to gauge your sense of the outcome by tracking which campaign is doing a better job of down-the-stretch messaging that resonates with swing voters through paid advertising, supplemented by the unpaid press coverage in the newspapers and on TV news as well as in online publications. My sense is that we are at an inflection point over the next two weeks as to whether Governor Hochul or Zeldin will prevail on that issue’s salience factor among Independent and weak partisan voters. The final factor to gauge—in terms of the ultimate outcome—will be which party’s campaign does a better job of generating the optimum turnout pattern for their statewide candidates, including through mail-in ballots and early voting.

With regard to New York’s congressional races, the focus will be on Republicans and whether they can make gains on Long Island—winning the open Rep. Tom Suozzi and Rep. Kathleen Rice seats based in Nassau County. With Democrats, can they bring Patrick Ryan to victory in the mid-Hudson’s new 18th congressional district (after his upset special election victory this summer in the old 19th CD, previously held by current Lieutenant Governor Antonio Delgado), and can Josh Riley beat Republican candidate Marc Molinaro in the new 19th CD (after Molinaro narrowly lost to Ryan in the special election)? The final swing race to watch is the open Rep. John Katko seat based in Onondaga County—the 22nd CD. Polling shows this race—emanating from greater Syracuse into suburban and exurban turf—to be close between Francis Canole, the Democrat, and Brandon Williams, the Republican.

The final race pundits are keeping an eye on, is the 11th CD, anchored on Staten Island—the rematch between Democrat Max Rose and the incumbent, Republican Nicole Malliotakis. Rose won this seat by 6% in 2018, while Malliotakis won by that same 6% margin in 2020. Malliotakis is favored to win this rematch, but that range of 6% each in the past two contests is not the stuff of landslides.

It is difficult to handicap all of these marginal congressional races. A lot will depend on which candidates benefit from favorable turnout patterns, which will be a mix of what happens in the statewide races, and which issues the voters in these congressional districts prioritize in terms of their congressional votes. If either party can secure net gains of two or more House seats, that could become significant in the national battle for control of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Derivatively, the hot State Senate races will be on Long Island, where the Republicans are poised to reduce the Democratic edge—from holding six of nine Long Island State Senate seats after the 2018 election to holding as few as two to three such seats after the 2022 results are known. The Republicans are also hopeful that they can make gains in the northern suburbs and further upstate, while the Democrats think they can hold the line upstate while perhaps picking a new suburban seat revolving around Rensselaer County. The Republicans are talking about having legitimate expectations of picking up a net gain of four to six State Senate seats. If the Republicans realize those gains, that will open eyes in Albany—especially if the perception takes hold that concerns about crime drove those Democratic losses. If, however, the Democrats remain at 40 or more State Senate seats, their strategists will probably have a Cheshire Cat smile (currently the Democrats hold 43 seats).

It will be interesting to see which issues drive the outcomes in these legislative contests. No one could credibly be shocked if the issue constellation favoring the Democrats drives the swing House races in New York State, while the issue constellation favoring the Republicans—centered on crime—drives the outcomes in the swing State Senate races, rather than the same issue pattern driving both the congressional and Senate races.

The bottom line advice is to view New York’s voters as being in a grumpy and unsettled mood, which portends both surprise margins and perhaps upsets rather than certainty—particularly in the legislative contests. I think this could be a year when the pundits and the pollsters will need a spatula to scrape egg off their faces should they try to confidently make precise predictions on the outcomes of this year’s races, as I have cautioned. My hope is that this article, which eschews predictions, will help you focus on the key factors that will ultimately provide answers on which candidates may win and why.



pursuant to New York DR 2-101(f)

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