An Insider's View of the Election

Our author visits the political pros in four battleground states and is reminded that the swing vote in the November election is not conservative or liberal, northern or southern, young or old, black or Hispanic--it's the white middle class.


I asked the New York political consultant David Garth whether as a result of the 1986 tax-reform bill and the 1987 Wall Street crash, the Reagan Administration could be portrayed as anti-New York. The question provoked him.

"We in New York, we're the fucking country. You understand? We are not one of these small states. We're the power boys. We can't be hurt by some schmuck actor from California. We were not threatened by Jimmy Carter. We're New York. Hey, New York's got big balls. Koch has a big pair and so does Mario. I started to smile when you talked about Ronald Reagan hurting New York. That old fart's not going to hurt New York. He can't do a thing to us. Any way he turns, he needs us."

Welcome to New York.

No one would deny that New York is still the money center of the United States. But it is hard to argue that New York is what it once was, the imperial center of American culture and politics. Not after the narrowly averted fiscal collapse of New York City in the mid-1970s. Most revealing, perhaps, is what has happened to the Republican Party of New York. As the political consultant David Sawyer observed, "The Republican Party in this state was for generations the leader of the moderate establishment wing of the national Republican Party. That position has eroded completely."

Nelson Rockefeller, who dominated New York politics for thirty years, is gone. So is Jacob Javits, the U.S. senator whom Rockefeller nurtured and protected. And almost gone is the kind of moderate Republican politics they represented. New York Republicans have moved away from the George Bush style and toward the Ronald Reagan style. But then, so has George Bush.

There was no great mystery to how Nelson Rockefeller dominated the Republican Party. He did it with money. "One time we analyzed what each Republican county chairman in New York got from Rockefeller," John Burns, the chairman of the New York state Democratic Party from 1965 to 1971, told me. "They all got something--not necessarily out of the public payroll. Many were on the public payroll, but a lot of them were in other things that the Rockefeller family had control of. He owned the Republican Party." Rockefeller's power base was personal, not institutional or ideological. Did he leave a political legacy? Timothy Russert, a former aide to Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Governor Mario Cuomo, said, "Rockefeller probably extended the run of moderate Republicanism in New York and other places, and for that he deserves credit. Could he have stopped the tidal wave of conservatism? There's no way."

There are two Republican parties in New York now. One is the legislative party that controls the state senate in Albany, which has its base in the rural areas of upstate New York. "That's where most of the control and the patronage and jobs and prestige come from," Joseph Crangle, the Erie County (Buffalo) Democratic chairman, told me. The state senate is the last refuge of Rockefeller Republicanism. Its leader, Warren Anderson, "is really a Rockefeller Republican," said Ken Auletta, an author and a columnist for the Daily News. "Those Republicans up there are really very moderate. Who passes tax increases? Who passes school aid every year? They're really not a Reagan party."

The other is the Republican Party in the New York suburbs, which is far more ethnic and conservative and activist. That is the Reagan party. Richard Rosenbaum, the state party chairman from 1973 to 1977 and one of Rockefeller's chief lieutenants, acknowledged that since the days of Nelson Rockefeller "there has been an erosion of the center of the party and a movement to the right," although, he added, the right-wing social issues like abortion and school prayer which "are near and dear to the hearts of true conservatives are not really part of the dogma of the Republican Party of this state." Kemp Hannon, a young Republican legislator from Nassau County, who is the minority leader pro tem in the state assembly, described what happened: "When the Republicans got wiped out at a number of levels, the people who came in had nothing to lose. They were like myself--younger, brighter, more educated, more concerned about the issues." What was the agenda of this new Republican Party? "It was the Reagan agenda," Hannon said, although he was careful to point out that in his view it was Reagan's economic and foreign-policy agenda, not his social agenda, that revitalized the party in New York.

Auletta observed that politicians who were regarded as right-wingers twenty years ago--John Marchi, who beat John Lindsay in the Republican primary for mayor of New York in 1969, and Alfonse D'Amato, who beat Javits in 1980--are seen as moderate Republicans today. D'Amato's election seemed to signal a sharp shift of the Republican Party to the right. But D'Amato moved quickly to the center and became a pragmatist. "He delivers," David Garth said, "much better than Federal Express." In Garth's view, the Republicans of New York have not exactly been Reaganized. "They've mostly been D'Amatoed." In other words, new forces in the Republican coalition have pulled the party to the right. But the inexorable logic of New York politics pulls those Republicans who get elected back to the center.

The new forces are mostly white-ethnic voters. Russert remarked that "all the ethnics who fled [Buffalo] and went to the suburbs became Republican." That is less true of the ethnics who fled New York City, a great many of whom were Jews who retained their Democratic loyalty. Among white Catholics, however, the trend is clear. "We've got to watch ourselves," said John Marino, the executive director of the New York state Democratic Party "We've lost the Irish and Italian ethnic votes." Italian voters in particular have become a new and important Republican constituency. They tend to dominate the party in the New York suburbs.

In several interviews I advanced the hypothesis that Italian voters are now a core Republican constituency, just as Jewish voters are a core Democratic group. Auletta agreed with me, but Russert, who is a close observer of the polls in New York, cautioned that Italian voters are still split fifty-fifty in party registration, whereas Jews remain overwhelmingly Democratic. Nonetheless, he agreed that it is "becoming more and more true that Italian ethnics are likely to vote Republican."

Mario Cuomo clearly cuts into the Republicans' Italian vote. But it took some time even for him to establish his base. In his first race for governor, in 1982, Cuomo lost the white Catholic vote to the Republican Lewis Lehrman, who was Jewish at that time (he has since converted to Roman Catholicism). Cuomo carried Italian voters only narrowly that year. As Auletta recalled, Lehrman sent out millions of pieces of direct mail on the subjects of the death penalty and abortion during the last few days of the 1982 campaign. "He was playing right to the Catholics," Auletta said. "I spent the day with Cuomo. He was scared, literally scared, that the Lehrman thing would shift the tide and he could lose the race. Clearly, it was moving. The polls the previous week indicated a huge gap. No one expected Lehrman to do as well as he did. The only thing that would account for it was those mailings."

The 1969 Republican primary, in which Marchi defeated Lindsay for mayor, turned out to be prophetic. Conservative Italian voters have largely displaced old-line WASP liberals in the Republican Party. (When Lindsay eventually ran for President, in 1972, it was as a Democrat.) I asked Richard Rosenbaum whom else he would associate with the liberal wing of the Republican Party. "Have you ever heard of the dodo bird?" he replied.

Kemp Hannon insisted that the Republicans' success with ethnic voters has more to do with economic than with social issues. In fact, his advice to Republicans was "Avoid social issues." He explained, "We do not have a backlash effect in the Republican Party. I have not seen that." I presented this argument to one longtime observer of the New York political scene. I pointed out that most of the Republicans I had spoken to insisted that Republican gains in New York were due more to economics than to race. "The people you spoke to have to say those things," he replied. The reality, he said, was more complicated. In his opinion, Republicans are beneficiaries of racial tensions within the Democratic Party. "Politically, that's what the Republicans are living off, those tensions within the Democratic Party. " He called the Republican Party in New York a "purely reactive" party. "I don't believe there has been a Republican who could carry New York with a positive appeal since Eisenhower," he said. "Republicans in New York are only 'not Democrats.'" That is why Republicans can pretend that race is irrelevant. In his view, "For Republicans to run a campaign that was anti-black would be a terrible error. The point is, they don't have to."

In Presidential elections New York is still more Democratic than most states (Democrats have averaged 46 percent of the New York vote in the past five presidential elections, compared with 44 percent for Illinois and 42 percent for the nation as a whole). But it has trouble accepting liberal Democrats like George McGovern and Walter Mondale.

As Tim Russert observed, "New York is disposed to vote for a moderate or even a moderately liberal Democrat, but not a liberal Democrat. If candidates are viewed as isolationist in foreign policy, soft on crime, big spenders on domestic programs, and activist liberals on social issues, they're dead. They may lose New York by only ten points, as opposed to thirty points in Utah, but they lose." Foreign policy, he noted, is probably a more important issue in New York than it is in other states, because of the internationalist outlook of New York's ethnic constituencies. And that is where liberal Democrats have been most vulnerable. In fact, this spring the polls showed Dukakis leading Bush by six to eight points. "Dukakis has a very good chance of carrying New York against Bush," Russert said, "as long as he doesn't get trapped into a neo-isolationist foreign policy."

Joe Crangle, the Erie County Democratic chairman, complained about the tendency of outsiders to "Manhattanize" the New York Democratic Party. In Manhattan ideology is everything. "If you go down to Manhattan," Crangle told me in his Buffalo office, "people tell you immediately that they're a liberal Democrat or a conservative Democrat. If you went around here and asked people what kind of Democrat they are, they'd say, 'What do you mean? I'm a Democrat.' In upstate New York we're unhyphenated Democrats." He noted that George McGovern carried Buffalo in 1972 because he was simply "the Democrat."

Upstate New York in many ways resembles downstate Illinois. They are economically distressed regions (Crangle remarked that Buffalo has never climbed out of the 1958 recession). They are insulated from the racial and ideological conflicts of New York City and Chicago. And the Democrats continue to do pretty well in both places, particularly in comparison with the suburbs. The problem is that these areas are declining in population and remain largely outside the mainstream of Democratic Party debate. Crangle told me with some pride that in general elections upstate New York now casts slightly more votes on the Democratic line than New York City does. But he acknowledged that 70 percent of the state's Democratic primary vote still comes from the New York City area. The reason is turnout. New York City still has basically a one-party system, and so Democratic primaries are where the action is. New York City still chooses the candidates. Upstate "unhyphenated" Democrats have no choice but to vote for them.

In New York, unlike Illinois, race is an issue that people seemed uncomfortable dealing with--at least on the record. Off the record, however, they discussed the race issue as if it were a dirty secret. A disillusioned liberal I met with brought up "a central fact about American politics that is like having an elephant in the room." I asked him what he meant. "The central fact of American politics is race," he said. "The Democrats have black people, and the Republicans don't."

He explained that Democrats began to lose people's trust "in the late sixties and seventies, when we were pretending that the riots weren't really going on, that people weren't really getting hit over the head. You look at the slide in the Democratic vote. It is directly correlated with the crime indices." I asked him about the anti-government revolt of the 1970s, which brought Ronald Reagan to power. "What is it that people don't like about government?" he asked rhetorically. "Who is it that people don't want to pay taxes for?"

In his view, the Republicans don't even have to talk about "the social issue." "All they have to do is say to the Democrats, 'Jesse Jackson is with you.'" I asked him whether the Democrats could say back to the Republicans, "Well, Pat Robertson is with you." "How many evangelicals are committing robberies in Flatbush every day?" he retorted.

Edward Koch has been elected and re-elected mayor of New York by appealing to racial resentment. Mario Cuomo also has gotten elected and re-elected, and so has Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, although neither has made an explicit appeal to racial resentment. All three of these white-ethnic Democrats--a Jew, an Italian Catholic, and an Irish Catholic--have defied the trends. They have managed to hold on to the support of white middle-class voters who have otherwise been drifting away from the Democratic Party. Have they all done it the same way, or in different ways?

New York is a tough town, and one of the things New Yorkers like about Mario Cuomo is his toughness. "Cuomo scares the shit out of people," Ken Auletta said. I asked a New York political consultant if he had ever worked for or against Mario Cuomo in a political campaign. "God, I wouldn't be living here if I worked against him," he replied.

Cuomo does not present the conventional image of a liberal. In fact, Joe Crangle remarked to me that one reason the 1982 governor's race between Cuomo and Lehrman was so close was that the voters really didn't know much about Cuomo. "There was a real question about whether he was some sort of superliberal from New York. Governor Cuomo will never have that kind of a close race again." Equally rare among liberals these days is Cuomo's moral traditionalism. He projects a sense of values shared with middle-class voters. Ken Auletta told me about the time he invited Cuomo to attend the course he was giving on the Cuomo governorship. "I asked him, 'What would you do, Governor, if money were no object and you had to solve the problem of teenage pregnancy in this state? You've experimented with support services and other programs, but they haven't had an appreciable effect. What do you do about this problem?' Cuomo's instinctive response was 'Tell them not to have sex.'" Auletta added, "That's Cuomo the Queens blue-collar Italian immigrant talking."

On some issues, of course, the governor's views are a little "advanced"- notably abortion and the death penalty. He defuses his vulnerability on these issues, however, by analyzing them publicly as moral and intellectual problems and as matters of conscience.

Cuomo's 1984 keynote speech to the Democratic National Convention was a ringing affirmation of Democratic values. As Laurence Kirwan, the state's Democratic Party chairman, put it, "When people ask what the Democratic Party stands for, you can turn right to Mario's speech." But his approach to governing has not been that of a liberal ideologue. Auletta, one of the leading experts on the Cuomo record, calls him an "incrementalist" and a "tinkerer." "He's not a guy who throws long touchdown bombs." Auletta argues that while state spending has grown at an alarming rate under Cuomo, the governor has been much more fiscally conservative in his approach to the state debt. Moreover, in his dealings with the state legislature "he has been more conciliatory than combative."

Tim Russert, who worked as Governor Cuomo's general counsel, agrees that "when national Democrats heard the keynote speech, they believed it was a call to arms. But when Cuomo quells a prison riot, when he refuses to raise broad-based taxes, he is the quintessential centrist to New Yorkers." Joe Crangle contrasted Cuomo's style with that of a typical "Manhattan Democrat." "Cuomo," he says, "is tolerant of another person's viewpoint. The liberal Manhattan Democrat is not tolerant and is not understanding of a person's social and cultural background. Many liberal Democrats think that if you don't agree with their viewpoint, you're not a Democrat." Crangle offered another contrast, between two kinds of politicians. "There's a person who goes into politics because of his need to pontificate about what is right and wrong and his own theories of government"--in other words, an ideologue. Then "there's the person who goes into politics because he really wants to help people, he gets turned on by people"--in other words, a pragmatist. In Crangle's view, "Carter didn't really enjoy people. Kennedy enjoyed people. Governor Cuomo enjoys people."

Mayor Koch is much more of a controversialist. According to Auletta, "Koch personalizes things to a great extent. He is a hater" That is one reason why Koch got into trouble with corruption, Auletta believes. "He was so geared up to fighting his enemies, whom he identified as reform liberal Democrats, that he assumed, 'Anyone who is an enemy of my enemy must be my friend.'"

Koch's behavior in this year's New York Democratic presidential primary was widely criticized as disgraceful. In his attacks on Jesse Jackson he deliberately stirred up tensions between blacks and Jews. More precisely, as the Manhattan borough president, David Dinkins, put it to The New York Times, Koch "exacerbated tensions that already existed." The racial politics of the New York primary suggested that New York was not far from becoming another Illinois. But there was one big difference: Democrats in New York responded negatively to Koch's confrontationalism. His candidate, Senator Albert Gore, Jr., was trounced in the primary. New Yorkers gave a decisive victory to Dukakis, who stayed as far away from racial politics as possible.

Senator Moynihan's appeal is based on something quite different--more like stature. Kirwan called him "a world-class senator and one of the most significant thinkers in Congress." David Sawyer, who is working on Moynihan's re-election campaign this year, called him "an icon." He said, "New York occasionally has senators, like Lehman and Javits, who are national figures, whom you can respect. Moynihan is one of them." In perhaps his strongest accolade Crangle called Moynihan "an unhyphenated Democrat."

Cuomo, Koch, and Moynihan appear to have solved the problem that looms largest over the national Democratic Party--holding on to the white middle class. Russert said, "There is a middle class that was part of the New Deal Democratic coalition. These are people who moved to the suburbs and became moderately affluent, whose hearts are Democratic but whose minds have become Republican. But they can return to the Democratic fold."

"Race is very important," he added. "That's the reason they fled the Bronx and Brooklyn and Queens. But economics is real too. They're on the margins. They take care of their mothers and fathers who still live in the city, and they're paying for their kids' going to college. They don't want to be hurt in their pocketbooks. If they have a sense that someone's too radical, liberal, or conservative, they punish him. All other things being equal, their instincts are to vote Democratic, but in most presidential races all things haven't been equal. They saw no equality between Reagan and Mondale."

Cuomo, Koch, and Moynihan appeal to this constituency in different ways. As one Democrat put it to me, "Cuomo appeals to their hopes and Koch appeals to their fears." And Moynihan, it might be added, appeals to their sense of pride. Not only do the three different approaches work but they work with the same voters. And the national Democratic Party has been unable to use any of them.

David Garth told me the story of a "big money guy" from the South with whom he was discussing politicians. "He says, 'You know, the two guys we like are Cuomo and Nunn.' I say, 'Cuomo? Why do you want a liberal from New York?' The money guy says, 'Well, he's the one candidate that the guy in the bar figures looks like them, talks like them, but is smarter than them.'" Garth elaborated, "Every other candidate went to Harvard Business School. Ordinary people can't relate to them. Mario, with the big nose and the big chest, even when he talks big words, he's talking to us." Koch has a similar appeal: "When Koch opens his mouth, he's a lower-middle-class white. He's one of them. They can relate to him."

How much of the appeal that these men hold for white middle-class voters has to do with race? A lot, clearly, in Koch's case. "Koch in a certain way is very gutsy," Garth observed. "Even though he is distrusted by black voters and hated by the black press, nobody has spent as much time in the black community as Koch. He'll fight with them, and they like it, because they figure it's not pandering." In fact, when Koch won re-election, in 1985, he carried the black vote. Many observers surmised that Koch's attacks on Jackson in the primary this year represented a calculated shift in tactics. His objective might have been to provoke the black community into running a Jackson-endorsed black candidate against him for mayor next year. Koch may be betting that he could win a straightforward racial contest--but at the possible cost of turning New York City into Chicago.

Moynihan was widely criticized in the black community twenty years ago, when he published his views on the breakdown of the black family, and even more when, as an adviser to President Nixon, he remarked that blacks might benefit from a period of "benign neglect." But he, too, draws heavy support from black voters.

Cuomo initially made his reputation resolving a racial dispute over a public-housing project in Queens. He has acted as a moderator and a conciliator on racial issues. But, my disillusioned liberal said, "Ask people what policy in Cuomo's six years in office has been addressed directly to the problems of black people. You can't find any. The first year he was governor, Mario announced that they would provide five million dollars for a study. That's it." The lesson seemed clear, at least to this informant: "The Democratic Party of New York has been successful electorally precisely by learning the lesson of the elephant in the room. They flee, as from the plague, from any suggestion that racial problems should be addressed."

What they are in fact fleeing from is the lesson of John Lindsay. Lindsay polarized the city in the late 1960s by appearing to cave in to black demands. It all comes down to values. Lindsay's values were those of a cosmopolitan WASP elite. Cuomo and Koch are definitely not of that persuasion. The values question seems to be what Joe Crangle was talking about when he complained about the Manhattanization of the New York Democratic Party. I asked him whether he felt the same thing was true of the national Democratic Party--that its image has been Manhattanized. "Yes," he answered, adding that "the great advantage we have here in New York with Governor Cuomo" is that he counteracts that image. David Sawyer asserted that New Yorkers would also feel comfortable with Michael Dukakis, because he shares some of Cuomo's appeal. "He's a northeastern, centrist-to-liberal governor with an ethnic background. And he has the Massachusetts model. We're comfortable with him."

Sawyer said that Dukakis was a "consensus-type character," as opposed to an adversarial figure, like Cuomo. He felt this could be a problem for Dukakis. "The people are going to look for strong leadership," Sawyer said. "They have to feel the person has strength, vision, toughness. That's a huge weakness Mike Dukakis has." In fact, toughness may be regarded as the national Democratic Party's principal problem--and the main reason why New York Democrats like Cuomo and Koch do so well. Democrats win when they nominate "tough liberals" like Harry Truman, John Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson. They lose when they nominate "soft liberals" like Adlai Stevenson, Hubert Humphrey, George McGovern, and Walter Mondale, each of whom might have been a preacher if he hadn't gone into politics. It is impossible to imagine Truman, Kennedy, or Johnson as a preacher. The Democrats won just once, in 1976, when they nominated a preacher for President. That was because after Watergate the voters wanted someone of unimpeachable character and integrity who would never lie to them. The experience with Jimmy Carter seemed to many to prove the rule: If you elect a preacher, you will probably get someone who isn't tough enough for the job.

Cuomo appears to have the requisite toughness, although he also has a monkish streak (he keeps introspective diaries) and a more than casual interest in religion (he argues theology with archbishops). Dukakis's toughness is not so readily apparent. Like Cuomo's, it has never really been tested. The two politicians seem more similar when it comes to values. Both hold traditional ones--what Sawyer calls "the immigrant saga, better future for my kids, my father working his way up." Cuomo, however, has made a specialty of defending, at least rhetorically, the old Democratic politics: sharing, family, compassion, mutuality, and the aggressive use of government to protect people against adversity. That is the Democratic Party's old-time religion, and Cuomo gives a terrific revival speech. Dukakis cannot give that revival speech. Jesse Jackson can, which is one reason why he gave Dukakis trouble in the early primaries and caucuses.

In the end, however, Dukakis's pragmatism could be a great advantage. Dukakis is not tied to the old politics as firmly as Cuomo is, and so he is less likely to frighten voters who think the old-time religion sounds like taxing, spending, and inflation. Sawyer zeroed in on this difference when he observed that "the Democrat has got to have the overlay of the more pragmatic, sensible, and even-handed approach--not New Deal spending or deficits." He continued, "That is why Dukakis, in one sense, is almost a better model than Cuomo. He combines traditional Democratic values with modern, technocratic abilities and with pragmatism--the ability to get government, business, and labor to work together and solve problems." Cuomo supporters were apparently attracted to Dukakis's modernized version of the Democratic message. The exit polls from the New York primary showed that most Democrats who really wanted to vote for Cuomo ended up supporting Dukakis for President.

Sawyer warned that pragmatism and consensus politics can be taken too far. Nevertheless, he said, "that kind of thing is exactly the right position for this part of the country." Sawyer then articulated a rule that summarizes the reasons for the Democrats' success in New York: "You've got to have the old values but not the old politics." If the rule holds nationally and the Democrats follow it, they could find themselves back in the White House.

Presented by

William Schneider is the Cable News Network's senior political analyst. He is also a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., and a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times, National Journal, and The Atlantic Monthly. His column appears every week in National Journal, a weekly magazine covering politics and government published in Washington, D.C.

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