Opinion: Governor’s race now a nailbiter

By BRADLEY HONAN and ELISABETH ZECHE | October 22, 2022 | Original Article

A wave of recent public opinion polling makes the following conclusion unmistakingly clear: even in Blue New York State, Gov. Kathy Hochul is running scared. Her 17-point lead over Lee Zeldin last month has shrunk to 11-points, according to polling conducted by Siena College, and other polls are showing the race even closer. Marist College had Hochul leading with 51% and Zeldin at 41% while Quinnipiac University had Hochul at 50% and Zeldin at 46%, a lead of only 4 points for the governor.  Recent polling by Survey USA has Hochul with 47% to Zeldin’s 41%, and a poll by right leading co/efficient, now has Zeldin leading Hochul by a single point. 

These polls, none of which show Hochul with more than 52% of the vote, and others, have led RealClearPolitics to declare the race for Governor in New York a “toss up.”  It’s an amazing turn of events and political fortunes for Democrats, given New York State is rarely, if ever, considered a swing state that is up for grabs.  This reality is causing commotion among Democratic insiders.

That said, no Republican has been elected statewide in New York since 2002, and Lee Zeldin has a very steep hill to climb. The Republican brand today, with its far-right contingency, is far more toxic to Independents and moderate Democrats than when George Pataki defeated Mario Cuomo in 1994.

In diving into the polling, it is worth noting that there are some important methodological and sampling considerations that account for these different results, but an in-depth reading of the polls suggest that the race may get even tighter – momentum seems on the side of Republicans, not Democrats, both across New York State, and around the country.

The fact that Biden and Hochul are keeping away from much campaigning is an odd decision given the tough political atmosphere they face.

In terms of their sampling of voters, the Siena poll is projecting Democratic turnout will be 47% of the electorate, while Quinnipiac’s polling projects that only 39% of the electorate will be Democrats. An independent estimate by Engage Voters (formerly Prime NY) puts the number of Democrats at 52% of the likely November electorate.  Indeed, the Hochul campaign attacked the Quinnipiac poll for “substantially undercounting Democrats.”  But how much turn out enthusiasm there will be among Democrats come Election Day is very much an open-ended question.

What the polling also makes clear is that Hochul’s near constant messaging of the abortion issue on her TV ads – an issue cited by a mere 6% of likely voters – versus the leading issues of crime (mentioned by 28%), inflation (20%), and protecting democracy (14%) according to Quinnipiac, is making Hochul appear to be even more politically vulnerable. And Hochul’s messaging is a big reason that Zeldin is winning Independents by 20 points, 57% to 37%, according to the Quinnipiac poll and leading Hochul in the suburbs by a single point 50% to 49%.  Similarly, the Siena poll found that Hochul’s 5 point lead in the suburbs has turned into a 4 point Zeldin lead within just the last month.  Female Independents are not gravitating towards Hochul, suggesting there has been a major Democratic misstep focusing so much of their messaging on the abortion issue. 

To continue to be politically viable, Hochul needs to stop burning up millions of her advertising dollars communicating her position on abortion and immediately pivot to touting pro-growth economic policies and addressing the top issue of crime. Her recent comments saying that New York City Mayor Eric Adams is “responsible” for policing the subways seemed particularly tone deaf in this climate and further positions her as the upstate candidate, running in a downstate centric-state.

As close as the race is today, the polling also suggests that the race will continue to draw even closer in the final three weeks of the campaign. While most expect that Hochul will win the race, the issue environment is particularly bad for Democrats.

Besides low marks on her job performance, Hochul hasn’t been successful so far in building a “likable” political brand. Forty five percent of voters have an unfavorable opinion of her versus 44% who have a favorable opinion, according to the most recent Quinnipiac poll. Also, 50% of voters, including 64% of Independents, disapprove of the job that Joe Biden is doing as President, according to the most recent Quinnipiac poll. So much for New York State pols riding Biden’s coattails

Plus, the most recent Siena poll showed the majority of Independents, 56%, see the state as moving in the wrong direction, and just 4 in 10, or 39%, see New York moving on the right track. The crime issue, which Zeldin has been driving for most of the general election campaign, appears to be the leading issue that voters are casting their ballots on. Donald Trump has faded from being front and center. So the focus is back on Democrats and how they are running the country and state. Trump is a powerful foil for Democrats, but he has remained on the political sidelines for much of the fall.

While we expect the race to get even closer, there are two other important things that we know:

  1. Long Island and the Northern New York City suburbs and into the Hudson Valley are likely to turn red. A number of Democratic held seats will be lost at the state and federal level across the state, and the loss of Congressional seats will help the GOP take control of the House.
  2. We don’t see Hochul emerging from this election with much of a mandate to govern, given she is likely to win with under 55% of the vote, and maybe a lot closer to 50%. Andrew Cuomo won his 2010 election for Governor handily by a margin of 29 points, in 2014 he won again with a margin of 14 points, and in 2018 by a margin of 23 points. Those are the kinds of margins necessary to allow a governor to get his or her agenda through Albany. A weak showing by Hochul in this election will empower the legislature to take on more of a role in the upcoming legislative session, something we will be watching closely.

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