In a recent post, Matthew wrote about the New York gubernatorial Democratic primary between incumbent Andrew Cuomo and self-proclaimed anticorruption candidate Zephyr Teachout. He laid out several reasons why even progressive voters who care about combating corruption could rationally cast a vote for Cuomo over Teachout. Since Matthew’s post, primary polls have closed and, indeed, unofficial results show Cuomo taking the Democratic nomination in a landslide (though not as sweeping a landslide as expected). Matthew’s predictions have been borne out, but as this post will explain, likely for different reasons than those he posited.
Matthew predicted that progressive anticorruption voters would vote for Cuomo because they believed that (1) eking out a victory in the primary with relatively low levels of support could hurt Cuomo’s chances in the general election, or (2) a win by the leftist Teachout could greatly lower the chances of a Democratic win on election day by causing centrist Democrats to stay home or defect to the Republican candidate.
Both of these reasons are compelling in theory, but make less sense when applied to New York’s political landscape (which, in fairness, Matthew qualified they might). The first reason is plausible in races where the general is as or more competitive than the primary. However, in a state as overwhelmingly blue as New York, the tough race for most Democratic candidates is the primary, not the general. Low levels of support in the primary might bear on a candidate’s national aspirations, but less so on the general election. And while it’s true that Cuomo is regarded by some as too right-leaning on hot-button issues like income inequality and budgeting, this suggests more votes for Teachout, not more defections to Rob Astorino, Cuomo’s Republican challenger. In fact, one could easily imagine Matthew’s first argument running the other way: lower levels of support for Cuomo in the primary could serve to mobilize the Democratic base and increase party unity going into the general election.
The second reason fails to take into account the credibility of the Republican challenger’s threat. Astorino is a socially conservative Catholic radio broadcaster with even less name recognition than Teachout. Though he pulled off a surprising win in the 2009 race for Westchester County Executive, an August poll showed that 53% of voters had formed no opinion of him or had never heard of him. Current polls show him trailing Cuomo by a 28-40 point margin and at least $20 million in campaign donations. New Yorkers have elected one Republican governor (George Pataki) in the last 40 years. So while it’s true that a Teachout/Astorino race is a less certain Democratic win than a Cuomo/Astorino face-off, it certainly wouldn’t be a lost cause. In fact, for a voter who really cares about corruption, New York’s voting patterns and Astorino’s lackluster campaign suggest that this primary would have been a particularly safe space to vote for an anticorruption candidate.
So why didn’t they? Putting campaign funding and name recognition gaps aside for a minute, let’s consider a few other possibilities.
(1) As has been previously suggested on this blog, it’s unclear how much weight corruption actually carries in the voting booth, even in a state with major corruption issues such as New York. Related, but slightly different versions of this argument are that (a) the longer Albany maintains its corrupt status quo, the more likely voters are to perceive corruption as an inevitable part of the political game, and (b) partially as a result of (a), voters don’t believe that anticorruption candidates will be able to actually decrease corruption if elected. This means that even voters for whom corruption is the number one issue may be swayed to vote for the “more corrupt” candidate in hopes of having some say on less important but more tractable issues. Some studies support this line of thinking, finding that anticorruption candidates, once in office, are less effective at battling corruption than their campaign promises suggest. This was demonstrated by India’s anticorruption party, which promptly dropped its anticorruption agenda after being elected, and more locally, by Cuomo’s failed Moreland Commission.
(2) A second possible reason anticorruption voters didn’t vote for Teachout is the power of endorsements. In New York – particularly in primary elections where voter turnout tends to be low – endorsements from political parties, public-employee unions, news outlets, and other elected officials hold significant sway. In this primary race, the endorsements were a mixed bag. Teachout scored some significant endorsements (from the Public Employees Federation) and some important non-endorsements of Cuomo (from The New York Times). However, Cuomo got an important boost from the Working Families Party, an influential progressive New York mainstay that endorsed Cuomo even after recruiting Teachout to run. He was also endorsed by two major unions, the Transport Workers Union and 1199 SEIU, which are able to mobilize their large member bases to vote the party line. Lastly, Cuomo received the endorsement of current New York City mayor Bill de Blasio, the very elected official whose leftist progressive wake Teachout was hoping to ride into office. Elections heavily swayed by endorsements would not seem to bode well for anticorruption candidates and agendas. Endorsements usually come from large civic and political organizations, which have more to gain by supporting an incumbent with whom they have a well-established, potentially profitable relationship than by rocking the status quo boat.