In this fractured era of political discourse, even the most ardent Democrat and Republican in New York can agree on this: Gov. Kathy Hochul is poised to win the New York City vote on Tuesday.
Whether she can hang on to her seat, however, may depend on how much she can run up the score.
Both Hochul, a Democrat, and Republican challenger Rep. Lee Zeldin have devoted much of the final stretch of their tighter-than-anticipated campaigns to getting out the vote in the five boroughs, with Hochul bringing in Democratic A-listers like Vice President Kamala Harris and the Clintons to rally there on her behalf in the last week.
It’s not a mystery as to why: Hochul’s ability — or inability — to convince Democratic voters to head to the polls in New York City could make or break her as she tries to become the first woman elected governor in New York, running on a message of protecting abortion rights to stave off a stiff challenge from Zeldin and his tough-on-crime campaign.
"This whole election could come down to how big the turnout is in Brooklyn," former President Bill Clinton said at a pro-Hochul rally in Brooklyn Saturday. "You've got just a few days here to make sure enough people know it, to know that they need to take the time to vote."
Republicans, meanwhile, have their sights set on a goal: 30% of the citywide vote, which Zeldin supporters say could be enough to secure a victory for him statewide.
“For Lee to win, anything over 30% is good,” Zeldin campaign pollster John McLaughlin said.
A huge share of the NY vote
The five boroughs are home to 5.2 million — or 40% — of the state’s 13.1 million total registered voters, according to state Board of Elections data updated and released last week. Of those, 3.5 million are Democrats, 1 million are independents and just 526,000 are Republicans.
In the last three gubernatorial elections, former Gov. Andrew Cuomo rode a huge margin of victory in New York City to convincing statewide wins. Each time, Cuomo took home at least 77% of the city vote. (In 2014, his Republican challenger Rob Astorino actually beat him slightly outside the boroughs, though it wasn’t nearly enough to make the race competitive.)
Republican operatives have long had their eye on the 30% mark.
When former Gov. George Pataki — the last Republican to win a statewide race in New York — first ran in 1994, he won 28% of the New York City vote. When coupled with convincing wins on Long Island and upstate, it was just enough to propel him to a slim, 3-point win statewide.
What we're definitely seeing is that Democratic base voters are sleepy in this moment.
But the state and city are more Democratic now than they were 28 years ago. Statewide, Republicans now make up less than a quarter of total voters; back then, it was a little less than a third.
Zeldin supporters acknowledge he’ll likely have to do at least a little better than Pataki did in the city in 1994 to have a real chance at winning on Tuesday. To do so, Zeldin would have to outperform in areas outside of traditional Republican strongholds like much of Staten Island and the more conservative parts of Brooklyn and Queens.
“There's sort of this open talk about this 30% bar that most Republicans believe and have long believed that a gubernatorial candidate needs to achieve in the modern era in New York City in order to win,” said New York City Councilmember Joe Borelli, a Republican running a pro-Zeldin super PAC. “We’re hopeful that can be achieved. I think it’s a floor he needs to achieve in order to win.”
McLaughlin also subscribes to the 30% theory.
“Most of the final days are going to be about campaigning in New York City — the rallies, the early votes,” McLaughlin said on Friday. “The Democrats are lagging compared to where they were in the past.”
Recent polls have shown Hochul polling anywhere from 59% to 70% of the New York City vote, below Cuomo’s mark and putting Zeldin within striking distance of the 30% mark.
But Hochul says recent history shouldn’t be the guide, anyway. Unlike her immediate predecessors, she doesn’t hail from downstate; she’s from Buffalo. And that, she says, changes the whole equation.
“I will be strong in New York City without a doubt,” she told reporters on Wednesday in Albany. “But we also will have pickups in places that Democrats running for governor historically don't. So that's why it's going to be a great election.”
Even still, she’s not taking any chances.
After a round of polls showing a single-digit race in October, Hochul has since campaigned aggressively in the city and called in big-name Democrats to help. She held a rally on Thursday at Barnard College that featured Harris and Hillary Clinton. Meanwhile, she also rallied with Bill Clinton in Brooklyn on Saturday, and her surrogates held rallies for her in the outer boroughs to coincide with the start of early voting. And on Sunday, President Joe Biden is scheduled to campaign for Hochul in Yonkers, another Democratic stronghold just north of the city.
The rallies, which came after a string of polls showed Zeldin closing the gap on Hochul, are designed to push core Democratic voters to the polls. It's a group that appears to be "sleepy in this moment," according to Sochie Nnaemeka, state director of the Working Families Party, a progressive third party supporting Hochul.
“The base has not been sufficiently energized and activated. And what we're spending a lot of time doing is really talking to what should be base voters — young people, people of color, New York City residents in particular — and really talking about what's at stake.”
Will Zeldin take the suburbs?
Both sides, meanwhile, acknowledge Zeldin is likely to perform well in what has traditionally been the state’s biggest political battleground: the New York City suburbs, including Long Island and the Hudson Valley counties to the city’s north, including Westchester, Rockland and Orange.
The eastern end of Long Island is Zeldin’s home turf, and even some Democrats are downplaying expectations for the suburban vote this year.
State Democratic Chairman Jay Jacobs acknowledged Zeldin may top Hochul in the suburban counties, particularly in Zeldin’s home county of Suffolk. But he said he believes Hochul just has to make a “decent showing” in order to prevail statewide.
“Looking at numbers in the past, looking at where President Biden's vote was in the past, I would say that we may fall short in the suburbs,” state Democratic Chairman Jay Jacobs said last week. “We're fighting hard for the suburbs.”
Astorino, the former Westchester County executive who challenged Cuomo in 2014 and lost a primary to Zeldin this year, said he believes Westchester, which is heavily Democratic, could be a bellwether.
“As long as she doesn't run up the margins (in Westchester) and he stays even within single digits, then I think he's in the ball game,” Astorino said.
Hochul and Jacobs, however, say she believes she’ll outperform her Democratic predecessors in upstate New York, where Republicans have traditionally performed well. They’re hopeful Hochul will turn out supporters in Erie County, where she served as a local lawmaker, county clerk and member of Congress.
“We'll do better than expected upstate,” Hochul said last week. “So historic narratives don't hold water this year because I'm the first person running for governor from upstate in 100 years.”
“We'll do better than expected upstate ... So historic narratives don't hold water this year because I'm the first person running for governor from upstate in 100 years.
McLaughlin, Zeldin’s campaign pollster, doesn’t see it.
“She’s not doing better upstate,” McLaughlin said. “I think that's what their potential strategy was, particularly in Erie County. But I'm pretty certain that Lee Zeldin's going to win Erie County.”
Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 8. Polls will be open from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m.