Paterson in No-Comeback Territory

It’s only been a year since he took office and the Democratic primary is still 18 months away, but it’s probably time to start asking when—and not if—David Paterson will concede that running for a full term in 2010 is a lost cause.

The latest death blow was delivered yesterday, in the form of a new Marist Poll that finds Paterson: (a) racking up the lowest job approval rating (26 percent) for any governor in the survey’s history; (b) losing to state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo by 36 points in a hypothetical primary match-up; and (c) falling 15 points behind Rudy Giuliani in a hypothetical general election contest. (You know you’re in trouble when the best news from a poll is that you’re only 15 points behind Rudy.)

To grasp just how dire Paterson’s predicament has become, ask yourself this: How many incumbent governors in any state have fallen behind by more than 20 points in a primary poll and still come back to win? The answer, not surprisingly, is almost none—and the very few who actually engineered such a feat benefited from extenuating circumstances that are not in play for Paterson.

For instance, there’s the case of Dave Heineman, who was Nebraska’s little-known lieutenant governor when Governor Mike Johanns resigned in January 2005 to become George W. Bush’s secretary of agriculture. Almost immediately, Tom Osborne, a god to thousands of Nebraskans for the three national titles he won as the state university’s football coach, announced that he’d seek the G.O.P. gubernatorial nomination in 2006, seemingly pushing Heineman, his fellow Republican, aside.

Resisting calls from national Republicans that he instead challenge Democratic Senator Ben Nelson in ’06, Heineman stood his ground and declared that he, too, would seek the gubernatorial nod. It seemed like a suicide mission: a May ’05 poll found Osborne crushing Heineman, 62-22 percent. (And I’m almost certain that an earlier poll, which unfortunately I can’t find any record of, showed an even wider margin.)

And yet Heineman spent the next year steadily chipping away at Osborne’s lead, finally catching him and prevailing in the primary, 49 to 45 percent. In theory, this should offer some hope for Paterson, who, in Cuomo and his 71 percent job approval rating, faces an opponent just as intimidating as Osborne was.

There’s a major difference, though: Heineman was starting from scratch when he was 40 points behind. He had just assumed the office and was still mostly anonymous to the electorate. As he shrewdly built his name I.D. and used his office to cater to his party’s conservative base, he changed the dynamic of the G.O.P. primary campaign. We like Osborne plenty, Republicans concluded, but why should we throw out a perfectly good conservative who’s already on the job?

Paterson, by contrast, is a year into his stint as governor. His honeymoon, with its easy opportunities to score massive polling gains, is over, and the evidence suggests that voters have given up on him. The current economic climate only compounds his predicament: 65 percent of New Yorkers believe the state is heading in the wrong direction. In this environment, it’s almost impossible for an unpopular incumbent to reverse his image.

Perhaps the only other governor to overcome a similarly horrific primary outlook was New Jersey’s Brendan Byrne, way back in 1977. In terms of public opinion, Byrne’s sin was very specific—instituting a state income tax and refusing to apologize for it. Polls showed between 60 and 80 percent of voters disapproved of his performance and, as ’77 approached, he acquired a new nickname: O.T.B., or One-Term Byrne.

Many of Byrne’s fellow Garden State Democrats, who have long enjoyed fighting each other more than Republicans, saw opportunity in his demise—and, quite fortunately for the governor, nearly all of them jumped into the ’77 primary race, which ended up including 11 candidates. Byrne remained deeply unpopular with the party, but with such fractured opposition, his base—good government liberals and an Atlantic City machine grateful for his support of casino gambling—was just enough to deliver a shocking primary victory, with just 30 percent of the vote. (Amazingly, Byrne ended up winning in the fall, too, as popular opinion on the income tax shifted and voters turned on the Republican nominee, State Senate President Raymond Bateman.)

Again, though, there’s not much inspiration for Paterson to draw from this example, since Byrne’s victory was keyed by a ridiculously fractured Democratic field. Had there been a Cuomo-type in New Jersey in ’77—a big name Democrat capable of intimidating other would-be challengers out of the race and monopolizing the anti-incumbent vote—Byrne would surely have been routed.

Plus, Byrne was better positioned to overcome his chief liability—anger at the income tax—by framing his decision as an act of principle (“The courage to do what’s right,” was his slogan). Popular frustration with Paterson stems not from one particular decision, but rather from a sense that he is simply a poor and incompetent leader, a sentiment that gained currency during the Senate appointment circus.

With public sentiment hardening against him and Cuomo waiting just off-stage, the far more likely role model for Paterson is now probably Massachusetts’ Jane Swift, an accidental governor who bumbled her way to hideous poll numbers and then woke up in February 2002 to a poll that put her 63 points behind Mitt Romney in a hypothetical Republican primary. Within 48 hours, she announced that she wouldn’t run, and the nomination was Romney’s—without a fight.

Paterson in No-Comeback Territory