Political pundits have all but declared the 1998 elections over, pronouncing George Pataki unbeatable and Al D’Amato nearly so. But the pundits’ reading of the polls is far too premature.
Just look at the numbers. Recent Republican victories in New York were based on razor-thin margins that could easily be reversed. The bulk of the state’s registered voters are Democrats, most of whom reside in New York City. They outnumber Republicans in the state by a five-to-three margin. The curse of the Democrats has been low and declining voter turnout–particularly of urban, low-income and minority Democrats–which has prevented the party, and the city, from retaining the keys to the Governor’s mansion.
Remember, George Pataki defeated Mario Cuomo in the last gubernatorial election by a mere 173,798 votes out of more than five million votes cast. Six years ago, Al D’Amato sank Bob Abrams by only 124,838 votes. Both candidates had a roughly 1 percent margin of victory. These are weak odds on which to bet that the Republican regime will continue well into the next millennium.
To be sure, the Democratic Party’s weak performance has resulted from many things–tired candidates and a fractured state party among them. But at the end of the day, it was low voter turnout–and the Democrats’ unwillingness to mount a massive get-out-the-vote campaign–that doomed both Cuomo and Abrams.
Regardless of all the high-gloss ad campaigns and boutique polling strategies peddled by high-priced political consultants, the fact remains that electoral politics is a relatively simple business. In Pataki’s 1994 win, turnout upstate was higher than normal–about two-thirds of the registered electorate. And even though Cuomo received 72 percent of the votes cast in New York City, only 49 percent of registered voters turned out in the five boroughs. We’ve got the voters, but they’ve got the votes.
If even a small portion of the disaffected voter base here in the city decides to take part in this year’s election, the incumbents’ presumed victories could well be thwarted.
Ironically, Republicans seem to understand this calculus better than Democrats. The GOP has worked assiduously against efforts to expand the franchise in areas where minority voters are likely to turn out heavily for Democratic candidates. D’Amato unsuccessfully opposed the federal “Motor Voter” law in Congress and sought to remove a key provision forcing states to offer voter registration materials to welfare recipients and the disabled.
He failed, but since taking office, the Pataki and Giuliani administrations have worked to undermine Motor Voter’s implementation. Pataki cut Motor Voter funds to the State Board of Elections, and delayed and prevented effective implementation of the law in agencies that serve low-income and urban populations–prompting voting rights organizations and eventually the U.S. Justice Department to sue the state. In turn, the governor has urged Congress to repeal Motor Voter altogether. Giuliani, for his part, has blocked efforts by New York City’s own voter registration agency, the Voter Assistance Commission–which I used to head–to use city agencies to register more voters.
Despite these impediments, hundreds of thousands of unregistered New Yorkers have been added to the registration rolls in the past few years, thanks to Motor Voter and to registration efforts by local groups.
So why aren’t these potential new voters playing a decisive role for the Democrats? Because the party is not exactly out there seeking their support. If it were, Democrats could probably choose the state’s leaders from now until the end of time. The problem is that the ever-increasing costs of elections have pushed the Democrats closer to people wealthy enough to fill their campaign coffers–a powerful constituency that makes its own demands of the party. Those demands represent a very different agenda than that which would spark a fire underneath the non-voters and get them tothe polls.
Candidates with the political savvy to recognize the potential power of these non-voters–and the political gumption to wage a real, issue-oriented campaign that speaks to the interests of this sleeping giant–could turn the tide on the Republicans and send them back out to sea.
Without drawing the party’s traditional base into the political process, Democrats’ attempts to appeal to a magical “middle” or to supposed “swing” voters have become a recipe for continued failure. Relying solely upon high-priced, poll-crazy campaign consultants for advice won’t do either. Take the example of Ruth Messinger’s campaign–which, in its consultant-driven wisdom, opted to not open a single outerborough campaign office and to focus instead on an underfinanced media blitz.
This year’s Democratic challengers should learn what New York politicians used to know by heart: You need to get out the vote by concentrating on field organizing. You need to knock on doors and ask for votes. And then you need to start listening to what those voters want from you and find a way to deliver.
Ron Hayduk was Coordinator of the NYC Voter Assistance Commission from 1993 to 1995, and is currently assistant professor of Politics at Touro College.