Near Ground Zero, Paternal Pataki Reaps Dividends

Former gubernatorial candidate Andrew Cuomo may have dismissed George Pataki as nothing more than a coat-holder for the real heroes on Sept. 11, but New Yorkers-many of whom saw the carnage and destruction firsthand-clearly have kinder things to say about their Governor.

Pollsters and political insiders have found that city residents are more optimistic about the future, and more confident in their leaders, than other Americans. Howard Wolfson, the executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, calls it the “Ground Zero effect,” and its chief beneficiary is Mr. Pataki, the two-time Republican incumbent who is seeking re-election this fall.

“When you break down the polls district by district, nowhere are the ‘right direction’ numbers higher than in the New York City metropolitan area,” Mr. Wolfson told The Observer . “Right after Sept. 11, the percentage of people nationally who thought their region was going in the right direction was extremely high. Since then, the national ‘right direction’ numbers have decreased significantly.” But not in New York-making life a good deal more complicated for Mr. Pataki’s only remaining Democratic challenger, Comptroller H. Carl McCall, along with independent candidate Thomas Golisano.

And as 9/11 commemorations deluge the electorate in the coming weeks, emotions are likely to become more intense.

“The No. 1 beneficiary of the events [of 9/11] is President George Bush. The No. 2 beneficiary is Governor George Pataki,” said Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway. “A year after, there is a quest for certainty and control. We want to stick with what we know; familiarity breeds content.” The last thing people want is to wake up in the morning and find that the whole landscape has changed.

Pollsters frequently ask subjects if they feel that the nation as a whole and their region in particular are headed in the right or wrong direction. Generally, those who believe that things are heading in the right direction tend to be optimistic about the economy and content with incumbent politicians.

But, pollsters say, after Sept. 11, 2001, the concept of “right direction” changed. “What it was measuring,” said Republican pollster William McInturiff, “was something totally other than the economy; it was measuring national pride.” But since then, polls have picked up an increase in those who believe that the nation and their own regions are heading in the wrong direction. In July, a poll taken by Mr. McInturiff with Democrat Stanley Greenberg for National Public Radio found that 56 percent of respondents thought the country was on the wrong track, compared to 36 percent who said it was moving in the right direction. This was a sharp shift from a month earlier, when 49 percent answered that the country was headed in the right direction, to 39 percent who said it was on the wrong track.

To be sure, pollsters disagree about the phenomenon and its effects. “Things are correctly perceived to be on the wrong track in California: The economy stinks and there’s an energy crisis,” said one Republican supporter of Governor Pataki. Of course, Republicans would rather argue that it’s Mr. Pataki’s stewardship of the state, or his smart campaign, that explains his high standing in the polls.

But there are some Republicans who agree that a Ground Zero effect exists, and that Mr. Pataki is benefiting from it. “This race, and others nationally, are more character-based than any in recent memory,” said one. “Usually there are national trends-like years when people made health care the focus. This year, it’s a different type of election. Voters want to see who you are as a person. The closer you are to Ground Zero, the more important that is to you.”

There are reasons for this, the strategists say. Many New Yorkers knew somebody who died at the World Trade Center; Sept. 11 is not an abstraction for them. When death and destruction-and the emotions they cause-are involved, the political formulas become scrambled.

But Mr. Pataki has figured out a way to tap into the emotions around Sept. 11 without appearing exploitive. First there was the television ad taped by former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani endorsing Mr. Pataki-the first heavy statewide ad buy by the Pataki campaign. Mr. Giuliani has become a signifier of the comfort Ms. Conway described; to have him appear in an ad calling Mr. Pataki “honest” has an almost balm-like effect on voters.

There’s little doubt that Sept. 11 has profoundly shifted New York politics. Many Democrats argue there would have been no halo effect around Mr. Giuliani were it not for 9/11, and consequently no Giuliani ad for Michael Bloomberg last year-or at least not so potent an ad. That ad, of course, is given credit for turning the tide in Mr. Bloomberg’s favor last year.

This has not been lost on Mr. Pataki. In addition to the Giuliani ad, there’s the “thank-you commercial,” as it is called in political circles. In it, the Governor thanks New Yorkers for “their role” in pulling together after the attacks. “It’s a brilliant ad,” said Democratic pollster Jeffrey Pollack. “It reminds people of Pataki’s leadership without appearing crass or exploitive.”

The Ground Zero effect also explains the way voters are reacting to the Democratic candidates. It is Mr. McCall, a known commodity with an easygoing reputation, who built a commanding lead for the right to challenge Mr. Pataki. Voters think of him as a nice guy, a man of character.

But Mr. Cuomo’s message-that he is the reformer, the outsider, the one who will shake things up-was actually frightening to an electorate craving macaroni-and-cheese and apple pie. Voters had an unusually negative opinion of Mr. Cuomo; aƊQuinnipiac College poll in August showed that fully a third of voters didn’t think he had a likable personality.

Strategists trace this opinion to two sources: the so-called “screamer” ad, an early Cuomo commercial where he spoke directly-some say too aggressively-into the camera, and the “coat-holder” remark, in which he accused Mr. Pataki of not being a leader and of simply holding “Mayor Giuliani’s coat.”

The Ground Zero effect explains why voters reacted so strongly to Mr. Cuomo’s remark. If there are criticisms to be made of George Pataki, this isn’t the one they want to hear. Strangely, sources familiar with the Cuomo campaign say that the theme wasn’t simply a misstep, that Mr. Cuomo’s team actually tested questions about Mr. Pataki’s leadership in focus groups. But the remark went over disastrously.

“That was the beginning of the end,” said one private pollster not connected to either campaign.

And so Mr. Pataki rolls along. In late August, the Governor assembled his by-now-familiar crowd of New Yorkers from diverse backgrounds for a pep rally in Union Square. Assemblyman Dov Hikind, a Brooklyn Democrat who has supported Mr. Pataki three times now, was articulating the rally’s theme. “After Sept. 11, George Pataki showed incredible leadership and dignity,” he said. “He didn’t grab headlines. He was there doing what he had to do to govern the state of New York. And he is a nice and decent guy.”

The crowd yelled: “Pataki! Pataki! Pataki!”

The rain poured down. Yellow-ponchoed union members dispersed. The feeling did not.

Terry Golway will return to this space soon.