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City & State Op Ed: Siena poll paints warning signs for Democrats in New York state

By Bradley Honan and Elisabeth Zeche | August 28, 2023 | Original Article

The latest Siena College poll out last week identified a strong undercurrent of dissatisfaction and concern that may spell trouble for down-ballot Democrats in both 2023 local races and the pivotal congressional elections next year.  While the state is strongly Democratic, there is a significant level of unease among New Yorkers, which was on display last fall with Lee Zeldin’s very strong statewide performance in the gubernatorial election. This latest poll makes clear that this negative sentiment remains in place today.

New Yorkers, in a general sense, lean towards Biden and the Democrats, but their views on the migrant crisis are indicative of broader challenges the Democratic Party faces.

Here are what we believe are the most notable trends to emerge from our analysis of the public polling data from the Siena poll.

Strength at the top of the ticket is soft

President Joe Biden’s current standing in blue New York is soft – under 50% – and down from the prior Siena poll.  Biden’s lead over former President Donald Trump is down to just 13 percentage points from a 22-point lead in June and Biden is winning only 47% of the vote in deep blue New York state.  While Biden will not lose New York to a Republican in the presidential contest, and certainly not a candidate named Trump, this polling demonstrates real softness for Biden, as a candidate – and one of the underlying problems facing Democrats. 

If the Presidential election were held today, Biden’s coattails would be all but shreds of fabric and maybe even bare threads. Indeed, the crucial swing audience of Independent and unaffiliated voters side with Trump by a margin of 9 points – a startling conclusion given Trump’s current intense legal jeopardy.  Biden is also notably weak with younger voters – those who are trending more Democratic in their party affiliation than any recent generation of younger voters. Among young voters, Biden’s unfavorability marks are 16 points higher than his favorability marks and his negative job approval ratings are 13 points higher than his job approval ratings among younger voters.

And Biden’s challenges go beyond swing voters. Among Democrats, only 47% want Biden as the party’s presidential nominee in 2024 and 46% want someone else. 

Gov. Kathy Hochul appears politically weak

Gov. Kathy Hochul has a 40% favorable and 46% unfavorability rating, down from 42%-43%, respectively, in June. Her job approval rating stands at 46% approve and 46% disapprove, down from 48% approve and 44% disapprove in June. Notably, her approval rating has continuously fallen over the last 5 consecutive Siena Polls.  Hochul is not on the ballot this year or next, but opinion is divided about her performance with a sizable segment that is disappointed and disenchanted with her leadership of the state.

Eric Adams, too, appears to be in the dog house with just 31% approving of his job performance and 47% disapproving.

The mood in New York state is negative

The mood towards the direction of the state and the nation is negative – which creates a strong sense that the current political leadership of the country (a Democratic President), state (a Democratic Governor) and largest municipality (a Democratic mayor of New York City) are not governing in a way that makes voters feel happy or optimistic – or even satisfied. Only 39% think the state is on the right track, while 48% say it is headed in the wrong direction. Notably, this metric has not been positive since October 2021. Like the ratings recorded in June, by a two-to-one margin, voters say the U.S. is headed in the wrong direction. These ratings in and of themselves paint a portrait of a tough electoral landscape that Democrats are playing in.

The migrant crisis: A burden on New York

The discourse around migration is especially poignant. New York has always prided itself on its rich tapestry of cultures, with the Statue of Liberty standing as a symbol of hope and welcome. However, the recent Siena Poll results indicate a shift, with a significant majority feeling New York has done enough and should slow the flow of migrants to our state. This sentiment cuts across party lines, with Democrats divided on the issue.

As the migrant issue continues to make headlines, the consensus seems to be that it is a significant issue and the flow of migrants to New York must be slowed. A whopping 82% believe the influx of migrants is a serious issue and a plurality feels that migrant resettlement has been more of a ‘burden’ than a ‘benefit’ – including a majority of independents and two-thirds of Republicans feeling this has been a burden. And by 58% to 36% – New Yorkers say the flow of migrants must be slowed, rather than having the state accept new migrants.

The perceived inability to address the migrant situation effectively, combined with broader issues like crime, housing, and the growing cost of living, mean local Democratic candidates will be fighting on two fronts: against their Republican opponents and against the legacy of current Democratic leaders.

Key recommendations:

We think there are several implications for Democrats coming out of this polling that will be important if they are to win very challenging upcoming races.

The Democratic base is not wide awake

While we believe that a wide range of polls conclude that Trump will become the GOP nominee, and will help enormously to wake up our base, several challenges within our base confront our party today.  First, young voters, who are reporting Democratic affiliation in higher numbers than any of their prior-generation peer groups, seem particularly disengaged. Second, African American voters are as likely as white voters to say New York state is off on the wrong track. And last, Latino voters are 5 points more likely to say they disapprove of the job Biden is doing than approve of it. So, there is disengagement, disappointment, and dissatisfaction among our base with the current state of affairs and with our party’s political leadership.  To be successful, our base will need to be re-awakened and re-engaged – and not just treated as a last-minute GOTV target.

Communicate independence and empathy

To win office in competitive swing areas, Democratic candidates will need to at a minimum distance themselves and likely stress their independence from Biden, Hochul, and Adams. And combined with that, they must communicate genuine and authentic empathy with independent voters over concerns about crime, the migrant crisis, high costs of living and taxes, and acknowledge the general feeling that America/New York is not in a good place right now.

De-weaponize crime & emphasize shared values

The GOP has been on a roll in critical swing areas, like Long Island, by very effectively creating a fear narrative around rising crime and weaponizing the issue against Democrats. Effectively, they have been saying that Democrats’ pro “Defund the Police” stance and letting criminals off easy is making crime get out of control and that the GOP is looking out for the interests of you and your family by getting tough on crime. To counter this playbook, which the GOP recycles every election cycle, requires that Democrats must communicate toughness on the issue of crime – perhaps going after ghost guns – and work hard to take this issue off the table or re-frame it to our advantage. Doing so will help de-weaponize crime and anti-migrant messaging from the GOP.

In conclusion, while New York state remains a Democratic bastion at the macro level, the micro-political landscape is shifting – and creating intense headwinds against Democrats. The concerns of everyday New Yorkers, their perceptions of local leadership, and their evolving views on issues like migration will play a significant role in the 2023 and 2024 elections. Down-ballot Democrats would be wise to recognize these shifts, address them head-on, and ensure they remain attuned to the needs and sentiments of their constituents. Otherwise, they might find themselves facing unexpected challenges come election day. There are national issues like whether Trump should have faced indictments, but it is the local issues, such as migration, that will likely sway voters in the 2023 municipal elections, as well as the critical congressionals coming up next year.

Bradley Honan and Elisabeth Zeche are partners at the Democratic polling and data analytics firm Honan Strategy Group. Honan is also co-president of the New York Metro Chapter of the American Association of Political Consultants.