It was July 11, 2004, and Senator Charles Schumer was at a road race in Utica, N.Y., shaking hand after hand in a re-election contest whose foregone conclusion wouldn’t prevent New York’s senior Senator from visiting every county, spending $12 million, and campaigning as if his life depended on it.
A trim man in shorts and sneakers, with a number on his shirt, walked up to the Senator, shook his hand and wished him good luck. Only later was the Senator informed that the man was his opponent, an obscure State Assemblyman named Howard Mills.
That November, Mr. Schumer broke the state’s record for an electoral margin, receiving an astonishing 71 percent of the vote.
Two years later, Senator Hillary Clinton finds herself facing an opponent who may well be as weak and little known as Mr. Schumer’s 2004 victim. But Mrs. Clinton isn’t running to set records: Her results, instead, will be a judged by Democratic Presidential primary voters concerned about her ability to defeat John McCain or another Republican for President in 2008.
And the expectations game is already well underway, with Mrs. Clinton facing several measures by which her ability to persuade the center will be evaluated: Will she get at least 60 percent of the vote? Will she carry the Ohio-like precincts of western and central New York? Will she trail other Democratic candidates, perhaps Eliot Spitzer, who figures to be the party’s gubernatorial candidate?
“She has to get 60 percent of the vote at least—if someone hits 40 against her, she’s damaged,” said Utica-based pollster John Zogby. Mr. Zogby said he has seen voters who used to say they had an “unfavorable” view of her move into the “favorable” category, and that more recently some who had held “strongly unfavorable views” were moderating. (In an earlier round of the expectations game, Mr. Zogby inadvertently helped make Mrs. Clinton’s easy victory in 2000—winning 56 percent of the vote—a stunner as he produced a steady drumbeat of polls for the New York Post that predicted her defeat. “These things happen,” he explained.)
Another pollster, Mickey Blum, said that Mrs. Clinton’s performance relative to other Democrats would be the key.
“I think that the thing that she may be concerned about, rather than a number, is how her numbers end up comparing to the other people who are running for the other statewide offices, and especially Spitzer,” Ms. Blum said. “If she gets 60 percent and he gets 70 percent, people will say, ‘Yeah, well, great, you won—but he brought you along.’ She doesn’t want to look like she’s riding on his coattails.”
Ms. Blum’s most recent poll, for NY1 News and Newsday, had Mrs. Clinton’s likely challenger, former Yonkers Mayor John Spencer, winning 30 percent of the vote. Pollsters believe that figure represents a hard core of reflexively Republican or anti-Clinton voters who are certain to vote for Mr. Spencer or another Republican nominee.
“Unless Al Sharpton endorses [Mr. Spencer], there’s nothing she can do” to reduce his vote, said a Democratic strategist.
This is the notorious expectations game, one that Mrs. Clinton’s advisors shrug off on the assumption that she can’t win such a media-driven contest.
“No matter what our final tally is, there will be those who will say its not enough. So we don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it,” said Howard Wolfson, an advisor to Mrs. Clinton.
The numbers game, however, will call for strategic choices about how she runs her campaign: Should she, like Mr. Schumer, pump millions of dollars into expensive television advertising in New York? Or should she continue to invest in what is essentially a shadow Presidential campaign, with a national fund-raising network and a deep, expensive staff?
“I would think she would want to win comfortably—I think they’d even be satisfied in the high 50’s,” said a Democratic pollster, Joel Benenson, who downplayed the national importance of her margin. “The question is how much do you need to win convincingly in New York—and then, once you hit that point, do you want to spend more money?”
At the heart of the issue is an argument that Mrs. Clinton’s performance this year— particularly upstate—is a test of her national potential. When The New Republic headlined a piece earlier this year “Hillary’s Upstate Myth,” her Democratic skeptics seized on its dual (and slightly contradictory) argument: “[U]pstate New York is not that conservative. Clinton hasn’t done all that well here—in fact, she lost the region in 2000 and remains a highly polarizing figure.”
But the very fact that she did as well as she did in the region six years ago came as a surprise to many analysts. And while nobody expects her to win over conservatives, her appeal to moderates will be tested in comparing her results this year with the 2000 figures in specific suburbs and upstate communities.
“She just needs to show—which she can—that she can win in areas where nobody thought she should,” said Ms. Blum. “That she can win in upstate counties, and that she can win in places where nobody gave her a chance and among people who she never expected.”
Of course, the standards of proof in the business of managing political expectation can be a bit elusive.
“It’s all about spin,” Ms. Blum said.
Mr. Schumer—now the white whale of New York electoral politics—is wishing her luck.
“Senator Schumer hopes she does as well as possible,” said the Senator’s spokesman, Risa Heller. She noted that Mr. Schumer is chair of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, the chief fund-raiser for Democratic Senate candidates. In that capacity, Ms. Heller said, Mr. Schumer will “do everything he can to make that happen.”
Follow Ben Smith via RSS.