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Empire State of Mind: New York’s Simmering Democratic Primary for Governor


— As he seeks a third term, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-NY) is favored to win renomination in what could be a high-profile primary against actress and activist Cynthia Nixon (D).

— However, Cuomo often has upset the left and there may be a path for a challenger. That path likely begins outside New York City, where Cuomo’s numbers are weaker than they are in the Five Boroughs.

— Because New York has no runoff provision for primaries, the entrance of a third major candidate in the Democratic field — perhaps former Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner — could help the incumbent by fragmenting the anti-Cuomo vote.

The Empire State Democratic primary for governor

Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-NY) has led the Empire State since his election to the governorship in 2010. Seeking his third term in office in 2018, Cuomo hopes to emulate his father, former Gov. Mario Cuomo (D), who also served three terms as New York’s governor from 1983 to 1994.[1] Yet also like his father, Andrew Cuomo clearly harbors presidential ambitions. The incumbent governor likely hopes to make a play for his party’s 2020 presidential nomination, something his father never did. Mario Cuomo famously vacillated so much over a White House run that he earned the sobriquet “Hamlet on the Hudson.” However, the left feels great disdain toward the younger Cuomo, which might complicate his presidential aspirations. Additionally, that same enmity is a driving force among liberal activists who oppose the incumbent’s efforts to retain the governorship. Cuomo’s opponents now seemingly have a candidate to back in the 2018 Democratic primary for governor: Cynthia Nixon, an actress and activist best-known for her role in the notable HBO comedy-drama series Sex and the City, announced her run on March 19. Beyond her acting work, Nixon has been involved in a number of liberal causes over the years, particularly LGBTQ and education issues.

Could Nixon defeat Cuomo in the Democratic primary? The history of gubernatorial nomination battles in New York suggests that is unlikely, as does the simple fact that Cuomo is an incumbent, and incumbents are difficult to beat, whether one is talking about general elections or primaries. In the post-World War II period, 94% of governors who have sought another term have won renomination. Additionally, two April horserace polls augur well for Cuomo: Marist College’s poll found Cuomo leading Nixon 68%-21%, and Siena College’s survey showed Cuomo ahead 58%-27%. As things stand, Cuomo remains a solid favorite to win renomination.

But there are reasons to think that he might be vulnerable to a primary challenge.

First, Cuomo does not have the strongest grassroots support. Despite having $30.5 million in his campaign war chest at the start of 2018, Cuomo gathered most of that money from big donors. Nixon claimed — truthfully, according to PolitiFact — that she received more donations from small donors (i.e. donations under $200) in the first day of her gubernatorial campaign than Cuomo had in his entire time in office. While Nixon will never match Cuomo dollar for dollar, she could gain enough monetary support from small donors to have the resources to truly challenge the incumbent. Such a strategy brings to mind another recent insurgent candidate: Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), whose 2016 presidential campaign relied heavily on small donors but still raised almost $230 million.

Second, the aforementioned anger on the left toward Cuomo could provide an opening for Nixon to exploit. A major bugaboo for progressives, and an early point of attack for Nixon, has been what the left views as Cuomo’s failure to end the Independent Democratic Conference, a group of Democrats in the New York State Senate who caucused with the GOP and prevented Democrats from gaining majorities in the chamber after the 2012 and 2016 elections. After years of inaction toward bringing the IDC back into the Democratic fold, Cuomo helped engineer the dissolution of the splinter faction in early April. Cuomo’s sudden reversal to deal with a major source of criticism on his left flank may be evidence that he views Nixon as a serious threat. On Wednesday, Cuomo signed an executive order giving paroled felons the right to vote, a move seen by many as another attempt to shore up his progressive credentials.

Third, Cuomo’s 2014 primary election result and recent polling numbers also show that he could have trouble in the 2018 primary. On the face of it, his 2014 renomination win does not look particularly problematic. After all, he defeated Zephyr Teachout by nearly 30 points, 62.9%-33.5%. Nonetheless, Teachout won a larger share than many expected, “a signal of the potent dissatisfaction with Mr. Cuomo in his party’s left wing,” as the New York Times observed. Teachout raised very little money compared to the incumbent but still won one-third of the vote. Her electoral strength was outside of New York City, where she lost by about 18 points, compared to Cuomo’s nearly 40-point edge in Gotham proper. Maps 1 and 2 show the 2014 Democratic primary result by county result, first in a standard map and second in a cartogram with each county weighted by its vote share in the primary (i.e. counties with more votes are bigger).

Maps 1 and 2: County map and cartogram of Cuomo and Teachout margins in the 2014 Democratic primary for governor

Note: Cartogram (Map 2) weights counties by the share of the vote they cast in the 2014 Democratic primary for governor. Click on maps to enlarge.

Source: New York State Board of Elections

In the first map, we see that Teachout’s strength lay predominantly in the areas around the state capital of Albany and the Hudson Valley (the east-central and south-central parts of Upstate New York). But the second map, a cartogram, better illustrates Cuomo’s edge by adjusting the map to depict just how much of the vote in the primary came from the Five Boroughs, the New York City suburbs, and Buffalo (Erie County). Note, however, that Cuomo underperformed his statewide margin in Manhattan (New York County), which had the second-largest share of the primary vote and happens to be from where Nixon hails. The most liberal bastion in the city might be a place where Nixon could build on the anti-Cuomo vote that Teachout turned out in 2014.

Additionally, Cuomo’s approval numbers are lower now than they were right before the Sept. 9, 2014 Democratic primary. An August 2014 poll from Quinnipiac University found Cuomo’s statewide approval at 57%, with 76% of Democrats approving and 19% disapproving. A few weeks later, Cuomo won renomination with about 63% of the vote. But a February 2018 survey from Quinnipiac found Cuomo’s approval among New Yorkers at 47%, with 68% of Democrats approving and 17% disapproving. Similarly, Marist’s April poll found that 55% of New Yorkers rated Cuomo’s job performance as “fair” or “poor” while 42% rated it “excellent” or “good.” Among Democrats, 39% answered “fair” or “poor.”[2] Cuomo’s standing among Democrats is particularly important in a state that has a closed primary, which requires voters to register with a party to cast a vote in its primary. Should the governor’s rating among Democrats worsen, it could create the conditions where a Nixon upset might be possible. Additionally, Siena’s April survey found that only 49% of New Yorkers had a favorable opinion of Cuomo compared to 44% unfavorable, matching his worst favorability mark in Siena’s polling data set from July 2015.

Should it be just a Cuomo-Nixon matchup (ignoring any minor candidates), Nixon would look to couple Teachout’s relative success in both Manhattan and Suffolk County on Long Island (Cuomo underperformed his 2014 statewide percentage in each) with Bernie Sanders’ success outside of the New York City area in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary against Hillary Clinton, a New Yorker. As Maps 3 and 4 show, the Vermont senator did relatively well in most places outside the NYC metro area, including a near-draw with Clinton in Erie County.

Maps 3 and 4: County map and cartogram of Clinton and Sanders margins in the 2016 Democratic primary for president

Note: Cartogram (Map 4) weights counties by the share of the vote they cast in the 2016 Democratic primary for president. Click on maps to enlarge.

Source: Dave Leip’s Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections

Though Clinton won statewide 58%-42%, Sanders ran better inside and outside of New York City against Clinton than Teachout did against Cuomo in 2014. The fact that Sanders essentially fought Clinton to a draw outside the combined areas of New York City and Long Island indicates that an insurgent, anti-establishment type of candidate could be a draw in the rest of the state. To beat Cuomo, however, Nixon will have to improve markedly on Teachout and Sanders’ performances in the Five Boroughs, which collectively cast a little more than half the statewide vote in both the 2014 and 2016 Democratic primaries for governor and president, respectively. Despite his sagging ratings, Cuomo remains relatively popular in and around New York City. The February Quinnipiac poll found him at +26 in net approval in the city and +10 in the city’s suburbs, compared to a -7 net approval Upstate. Similarly, the recent Marist and Siena polls also found his ratings to be higher in the city and suburbs than Upstate. Of course, there are many more Democrats in and around New York City than Upstate, but we do not have data on Democrats’ views of Cuomo based on region.

In testing the Cuomo-Nixon matchup, both Marist and Siena found Cuomo with giant leads over Nixon in and around New York City but with a smaller edge in Upstate New York. Marist had Cuomo ahead 72%-17% in New York City and 56%-32% in Upstate (Marist did not post data for the suburbs) while Siena found Cuomo leading Nixon 63%-21% in New York City and 58%-28% in the NYC suburbs, but only ahead 48%-37% in Upstate. It will be interesting to see if Cuomo’s main political rival, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (D), offers Nixon any support (tacitly or openly). Notably, some of Nixon’s campaign staff come from de Blasio’s orbit. Cuomo might be vulnerable to attacks over problems with the New York City subway system, too, which could dampen his support in the Big Apple.

Much could change before the Sept. 13 primary.[3] One possible shakeup could be the entry of another major candidate prior to the July 12 filing deadline for state-level offices. Former Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner (D), who is a rumored gubernatorial candidate, could do the shaking. Putting credence to said rumors, Miner just set up a statewide campaign committee for fundraising purposes, though her target office remains undeclared. As for evidence that Miner might be a compelling candidate, note that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee tried to convince Miner to make a bid in NY-24, a congressional district currently held by Rep. John Katko (R) that Clinton carried in the 2016 general election. The former mayor opted against running for Congress, but she left open the possibility of running for governor.

A Miner bid might actually be good news for Cuomo. Like most states outside of the South, New York requires only a plurality to win a primary. If opposition to Cuomo splinters between two candidates, it will be difficult to defeat the incumbent. Even if Miner and Nixon win over voters who like Cuomo, it is hard to imagine the incumbent winning much less than 40-45% of the vote, even if conditions worsen for him to some degree. Given Cuomo’s penchant for maneuvering to do whatever it takes to win or to weaken potential sources of electoral opposition, one wonders if political players close to the governor might actually encourage Miner to run. Because a Democrat is very likely to win the deep-blue Empire State’s governorship in this environment, winning the primary will probably be tantamount to election in November.

An additional wrinkle is Cuomo and Nixon’s relations with the progressive Working Families Party, one of New York’s notable third parties. On April 13, the New York Times reported that Cuomo pressured union leaders to discontinue funding progressive groups supporting Nixon. Correspondingly, local arms of two major labor organizations — the Service Employees International Union and Communication Workers of America — withdrew their support for the WFP prior to the party’s convention on April 14, a development seemingly connected to the WFP’s possible inclination to support Nixon. Following the labor pullout, Cuomo’s campaign also announced that the incumbent would not seek the WFP’s endorsement, signaling that Nixon would likely win the WFP’s backing. Because Nixon could win the WFP nomination while losing the Democratic nomination in multiparty New York, she could make it onto the November ballot and syphon votes from the left away from Cuomo. Hypothetically, a strong Nixon performance as the WFP nominee could increase the GOP’s very small odds of winning the New York governorship in 2018. With that in mind, Cuomo tried to put the squeeze on labor groups and the WFP to discourage support for Nixon. However, the WFP endorsed Nixon with more than 90% of the party’s convention vote. It is unclear if Nixon will proceed to the general election with only the WFP nomination should she lose to Cuomo in the Democratic primary.

Should Miner enter the race, it is worth keeping in mind one prior example of how divided opposition likely aided an incumbent governor in a New York primary. In 1978, Gov. Hugh Carey (D) won renomination with just a narrow majority of 52%, but his margin of victory was 18 percentage points over Lt. Gov. Mary Anne Krupsak (D). The vote for candidates other than Carey totaled 48%, with 34% going to Krupsak and 14% to state Sen. Jeremiah Bloom (D). Both challengers had formerly backed Carey: Krupsak as Carey’s ticket-mate in the 1974 election and Bloom as a state senator who hailed from Carey’s home borough of Brooklyn. Polls suggested Carey was vulnerable. A February 1978 survey from Gannett News found that only 23% of New Yorkers rated Carey’s performance as “excellent” or “good” while 50% said “fair” and 20% “poor.” Carey’s enigmatic personality, his battles with the legislature, controversy over the death penalty, and the pressure of financial problems in the state and New York City likely played a role in Carey’s mediocre public rating. But aided in part by divided intraparty opposition, Carey won renomination and then managed to win reelection by about six percentage points over state Assembly Minority Leader Perry Duryea (R).

New York has a long but disjointed history with the statewide primary. It first used a direct statewide primary to nominate state officers in 1914, replacing the convention system used previously. But after Nathan Miller (R) defeated incumbent Gov. Al Smith (D) in the 1920 election,[4] the new Republican governor and GOP-controlled legislature amended the direct primary law to return to a convention-based nominating system for statewide officers while preserving the primary for legislative offices. Until 1967, New York’s parties nominated their statewide candidates at party conventions. Despite vetoing a similar bill to reintroduce statewide primaries in 1965, Gov. Nelson Rockefeller (R) signed off on a new law restoring them in 1967, and Rocky won the 1970 GOP gubernatorial primary unopposed. Overall, only six governors faced opposition in the 13 primaries involving incumbents that occurred between 1914 and 2014. Table 1 lays out the results in those primaries.

Table 1: Incumbent governor primary performance, 1914-2014

Note: *Denotes unelected incumbents who succeeded to the office upon the resignation or removal of the previous governor. Following approval of a 1959 constitutional amendment, unopposed candidates did not appear on the New York primary ballot, which is why all unopposed incumbents besides Gov. Al Smith (D) in 1920 have no vote data.

Sources: New York Red Book (1915 to 1921), New York State Election Board, CQ Press Guide to Elections,

As the table shows, incumbents have been quite successful in primaries over the years. Cuomo’s 62.9% haul in 2014 actually represents the second-worst showing by any incumbent governor seeking renomination in a primary, ahead of only Carey’s 1978 performance. No incumbent has ever lost a primary.

In fact, only once since 1900 has an incumbent New York governor of a major party who sought renomination actually lost his party’s support. In 1912, Gov. John Alden Dix (D) failed to get a chance at winning a second term when he lost renomination at the Democratic state convention to William Sulzer (D), who went on to win the general election in November. All of this history bodes well for Cuomo’s chances of winning renomination in the 2018 primary. Yet if he has only one major opponent, the anti-Cuomo vote could consolidate sufficiently to imperil Cuomo’s bid for a third term. The Crystal Ball will be watching closely to see if Miner chooses to run and to see if Cuomo’s position in the polls improves or worsens in the coming months.


1. Mario Cuomo lost a bid for a fourth term in 1994 to George Pataki (R), who also went on to serve three terms as governor.

2. Note that polls that rate job approval on a “strongly approve” to “strongly disapprove” scale versus an “excellent” to “poor” rating scale are sometimes difficult to compare.

3. New York’s primary for state-level offices usually occurs on the first Tuesday after the second Monday in September. In 2018, this would have meant holding it on Sept. 11. However, concerns about conflicts with the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah and 9/11 commemorations led officials to move the primary to Thursday, Sept. 13. Since 2012, New York has held its primary for federal offices in June due to a court order regarding voting access for active military service members. Yet instead of consolidating the primaries in June or some other acceptable date, New York is the only state in the country with separate federal and state primaries, a costly and pernicious arrangement.

4. Smith won a rematch against Miller in 1922 and won reelection in 1924 and 1926. He unsuccessfully sought the Democratic presidential nomination at the party’s wild 1924 convention, but later won the party’s presidential nomination in 1928, when Smith lost to Herbert Hoover (R) in the general election.