OP-ED: Making the (political) point spread

By Peter Lane
In the world of politics, your bottom line is an election victory, even if you have to hang a chad or two to achieve a narrow one. That is not so much the case in the coming New York gubernatorial election, in which margins matter to both sides, albeit in very different ways.

More specifically, although Team Andrew Cuomo would never publicly acknowledge this—you never want to set too high a bar for yourself, lest you fail to clear it—they hope their guy does to Rob Astorino exactly what Rob Astorino can’t afford to have done to him. That is, Andrew wants to crush Rob the way his father once beat up on the late Andy O’Rourke when Mario beat him by a two-to-one margin in 1986, which translated to a bit more than Mario getting some 65 percent of the vote to Andy’s 35 percent.

That, sports fans, is a 30 point spread and it’s something political people have to believe Andrew is trying to match.

Whether or not Andrew is waiting for Hillary and, if she opts-in for 2016, will defer to her, he is clearly building up to an eventual run for the presidency and shellacking a Republican rising star will well position him within his party.

Now, although he is not widely known outside Westchester, Rob is rightly thought of as a rising star. Although it took him two tries—“Rocky II” anyone?—he first overcame longtime County Executive Andy Spano to win that post for himself by some 12 points in 2009. Then, last year, he handily—by another 12 point margin—beat back the well-financed Noam Bramson, who even had Bill Clinton stumping for him, in a county where the Democratic plurality, pushing 130,000 at last count, grows larger each year.

More importantly, Rob is a charismatic and telegenic Republican “Happy Warrior,” who combines principal and media savvy in much the same way Ronald Reagan did.

That stated, although he would remain county executive no matter the margin of any loss, it’s fair to say Astorino’s considerable political talents notwithstanding, a 30-point defeat this Nov. 4 will not be a career builder at this stage of the game.

Now, we have to assume Rob is fully aware he is entering into what many consider to be a lopsided race in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than a two-to-one margin. He is little known beyond this county—as of late March, some 65 percent of respondents did not know who he is or had no opinion of him—while Andrew has very high name recognition and had a strong, 58 percent, favorability rating even before he completed an on-time budget.

Unlike his father and Andy Spano in their respective final runs, the governor has not been in office long enough for his negatives, or even a fatigue factor, to accrue.

Equally important, Andrew is reported to have $33 million in the bank to Rob’s $1 million, so he is in a position to define Rob with TV commercials before Rob has a chance to introduce himself beyond Westchester.

This, even before Andrew raises yet more money—and he should enjoy an incumbent’s and favorite’s fundraising edge—to spend on aggrandizing himself.

But, whether or not David actually beats Goliath on Nov. 4, there is a way for Rob to pull off what would be a major political upset that would have national consequences. While Rob merely being Rob—he is that good—will motivate the Republican, and other conservative-minded, voters, key members of the Democratic constituency—read: minorities and poorer people—are less likely to go to the polls in a non-presidential contest, particularly when President Obama’s own numbers are falling.

But Rob has to raise enough money for media buys so the rest of the state will quickly, i.e. before the expected negative pieces take hold, come to know him as Westchester does. Rob must also be able to extend his ground game, identifying and getting your voters to actually vote, which was quite
effective in his prior county-wide victories, to the remainder of the state.

Then there are some factors that must break Rob’s way.

It would help a lot if the Working Families Party, which brought Andrew almost 155,000 votes in 2010 and is currently ambivalent about backing him this year, withholds its support from him and nominates somebody else. In this regard, political blogger Nick Reisman of “N.Y. State Of Politics” and ”Capital Tonight” recently cited a poll indicating such a decision might cut Andrew’s 30 point current lead in the polls by half, down to 15 percent.

Now for some intangibles and wild cards that should be impactful.

It’s quite clear New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and his progressive—note how the term liberal has disappeared from the political lexicon—followers will hardly go all out for Andrew as there is little love lost between their respective camps.

United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York Preet Bharara has recently announced he is looking into the governor’s reported controlling of, then prematurely folding, the Moreland Commission, which was set-up by him to fight political influence and corruption; for alleged politically expedient reasons.

No matter how this piece plays out, it has to be a negative for Andrew. It’s a question of how much, not if, it will hurt.

As for Rob, he must be careful how he deals with the Sustainable Playland issue with the City of Rye as local issues have a way of getting out of hand, particularly in an election year.

So, will Rob win this one? If I knew, I’d cash in my IRA and immediately head for Vegas. However, if anybody can pull this off, Rob can and, for the bettors among you, I think I’d make a Romney-like wager that Andrew won’t cover the spread.

Peter Lane retired as a Rye City Court judge and acting Westchester County Family Court judge at the end of 2009. He is now a political consultant and executive director of the Rye City Republican Committee.
The views expressed are his.