NEW YORK—If you were a Democratic primary voter in New York this summer, you would have assumed Governor Andrew Cuomo was in the fight of his political life.
You would have seen the television airwaves blanketed with ads for his campaign, including an urgent, direct-to-camera plea from former Vice President Joe Biden. Your mailbox would have been inundated with glossy fliers touting the two-term governor’s progressive achievements—legislation legalizing same-sex marriage, hiking the minimum wage, mandating paid family leave, and tightening gun laws. You would have seen Cuomo jump at every chance to attack President Donald Trump and pledge his administration to the defense of New Yorkers—immigrants, women, and minority voters in particular—against the president’s conservative policies. You would have smelled whiffs of desperation in reports that the governor had tried to rush the opening of a major new bridge named for his late father, and that his campaign was implicated in efforts to portray his opponent to Jewish voters as “soft on anti-Semitism.”
By the size and ferocity of Cuomo’s reelection campaign, you would think the governor was in serious danger of losing to his progressive challenger, Cynthia Nixon. Yet when the ballots are counted in New York’s gubernatorial primary on Thursday night, the surprise won’t be if Cuomo defeats the actress and activist—it’ll be if he wins by less than 20 points.
The most recent public poll of the primary, released Monday by the reputable Siena College, showed the governor with a whopping 41-point lead over Nixon, 63 percent to 22 percent. In the six months since the former Sex and the City star declared her candidacy, the closest she came to Cuomo in any public survey was 22 points. Nixon has launched all manner of attacks against Cuomo, accusing him of governing “like a Republican” and hammering his vulnerabilities on the sorry state of the New York City subways and the corruption convictions of his former top aides in Albany.
For the liberals this year who are trying to unseat veteran Democrats they view as insufficiently progressive, Cuomo would be the biggest prize by far. This primary season has been one both of opportunity and nervousness for the Democratic establishment. The party is positioned to parlay progressive anger at the Trump presidency into another shot at the House majority, but an insurgency on the left has toppled longtime Representatives Joseph Crowley in New York and Michael Capuano in Massachusetts.
For years, Cuomo has frustrated progressives who view him as too much of a centrist in the old Bill Clinton mold, bowing to his donors on Wall Street and in the real-estate industry, and brokering deals to deliver progressive victories only when public pressure from the left forces him to act. They’ve also taken issue with his acquiescence—until recently—to a breakaway faction of Democrats who helped keep the state Senate under Republican control.
The little-known Fordham University professor Zephyr Teachout surprised Cuomo by capturing a third of the primary vote in 2014 during his first reelection campaign. As he’s sought a third term this year, the deterioration of the subways and creeping corruption investigations have made him appear far more vulnerable, especially with a more recognizable challenger in Nixon.
Despite plenty of media coverage and the gift of multiple Cuomo blunders, however, there is little evidence that Nixon’s campaign has caught on with Democrats to the degree that other underfunded progressive candidates—such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York City, Ayanna Pressley in Massachusetts, and Andrew Gillum in Florida—have won over primary voters. After seeing Trump’s performance as a political novice in the White House, Democrats in New York have questioned Nixon’s readiness to lead the state, and she has struggled to win over the black and Latino communities that play a key role in primaries.
Why, then, is Cuomo campaigning like his job is in jeopardy?
To the Nixon campaign, the governor’s decision to empty most of his $30 million war chest is the best evidence that the race is much closer than it appears. “Andrew Cuomo knows this race is tighter than this poll suggests, or he wouldn’t be spending half a million dollars a day against us,” the Nixon spokeswoman Lauren Hitt said in a statement after the Siena poll came out.
Ocasio-Cortez, Pressley, and Gillum all overcame significant deficits in available polling, giving the Nixon camp hope that she too is reaching Democrats that the pollsters are not. Because this year’s 9/11 anniversary fell on a Tuesday, the primaries for state elections were moved to Thursday. Voter turnout in New York is historically abysmal, and the unusual election date could raise the chances for an upset. (Ocasio-Cortez defeated Crowley in a June congressional primary in which fewer than 30,000 registered Democrats cast ballots.)
“Again, and again, we’ve seen polls miss the mark this election cycle,” Hitt said. “They are missing the new electorate—people of all ages and races who have traditionally sat out the primaries, but are now energized to fight for fundamental change after the establishment Democratic Party failed to overtake Donald Trump.”
That may be true. But the consistency and credibility of the polling in New York, not to mention the sheer size of Nixon’s deficit—41 points— would make a Cuomo defeat on Thursday a shocker without precedent. And the perceived voter gap has compounded her challenge in other ways, likely costing her endorsements and sapping her fundraising ability. The New York Times backed Cuomo even as it sharply criticized the governor, and Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont snubbed Nixon while endorsing two of her allies: Teachout, who’s running for attorney general, and Jumaane Williams, who’s running for lieutenant governor. While Cuomo has been running ads for weeks, Nixon placed her first television spot on Tuesday, just 48 hours before the vote.
“If you’re able to sit down and watch four hours of live TV a day, you’ve probably seen hundreds of Cuomo ads—and, frankly, you’re probably voting for him,” the Nixon spokeswoman Rebecca Katz told me. “But we knew we were never going to be able to compete on broadcast TV with an incumbent governor with more than $30 million of corporate money.”
“Our campaign’s strategy,” Katz said, “was to expand the electorate and use digital and nontraditional media to reach the kind of people who don’t read about state politics in the newspaper or learn about campaigns from the evening news.”
Cuomo allies acknowledge that the uncertainty of polling is one reason for the campaign onslaught, which, if the surveys are correct, would border on overkill. And certainly, the memory of Teachout’s overperformance four years ago is a factor, too.
“He raised money, a substantial amount of money, so that he could do exactly what he’s doing now,” said Ruben Diaz Jr., the Bronx borough president who is close to Cuomo and is planning a run for mayor of New York City in 2021. “He’s putting out his record, he’s supporting other candidacies, he’s getting out his message, and it is resonating.
“If he wasn’t doing what he’s doing now,” Diaz told me, “you would be asking me a different question: Why isn’t Cuomo taking her seriously?”
Cuomo has responded to Nixon with more than just money. Within weeks of her entry into the race this spring, he acted to reconcile the warring Democrats in the state legislature and moved noticeably to the left on several policy areas. He became an ever more vocal Trump critic, positioning New York—with him at the helm—as “the alternative state to Trump’s America.” And his political allies used strong-arm tactics to thwart Nixon and consolidate party support, threatening funding to unions and nonprofit groups if they endorsed her campaign.
An easy alternative hypothesis for Cuomo’s heavy spending is that a decisive primary win would help him launch a presidential campaign next year. But the governor was surprisingly definitive in pledging to serve out his full term if reelected. “The only caveat,” he said during his lone primary debate with Nixon last month, “is if God strikes me dead. Otherwise, I will serve four years as governor of the state of New York.”
Cuomo’s need for lengthy coattails on Thursday is another explanation. While he is well positioned to win, the candidates he has endorsed for lieutenant governor and attorney general, the incumbent Kathy Hochul and New York City Public Advocate Letitia James, respectively, are in much closer races. Losses from Hochul and James would leave Cuomo with fewer allies in Albany and a trickier third term. The New York State Democratic Committee, which Cuomo controls, is running TV ads pushing the entire ticket.
Then again, the biggest reason for Cuomo’s aggressive campaign could be the simplest: sheer competitiveness. The governor started his race against Nixon up by 30 points, and he wants to finish it there. As Diaz told me, Cuomo wants to win “by as much as he can.”
“When you play a basketball game, you’ll take a victory if you beat your opponent by one point,” Diaz said. “But don’t we all go in hoping that we can have a 50-point blowout?”