No Way to Run for Governor

David Paterson, God bless him, remains publicly adamant that he will seek a full term in 2010.

There’s every reason to believe he means it, too. And yet it is still almost certain that, come September ’10, Mr. Paterson’s name will be nowhere near a New York Democratic primary ballot.

Right now (and for the immediate future), Mr. Paterson exists in a lonely political no man’s land. His poll numbers have been awful enough for long enough that his party has given up on him behind his back. But because the formal ’10 campaign is still a ways off, there’s been no urgency for them to tell him this to his face.

So, sort of like Richard Nixon was insulated enough to think he could outlast his Watergate tormenters until Barry Goldwater walked into the White House in August 1974 and told him it was over, Paterson can earnestly plead his intentions to run next year without being told no—for now.

If he keeps it up, the moment will come when Mr. Paterson’s fellow Democrats will be forced to move, and when the governor will realize just what he risks by forcing a primary with Andrew Cuomo.

As the governor and his supporters might point out, that all has the ring of unfairness. After all, it is Mr. Paterson, and not Mr. Cuomo, who is the incumbent governor, so if anyone would be forcing a primary, it would technically be the ambitious attorney general.

It's worth noting that it was Mr. Cuomo who in 2002 defied the overwhelming consensus of party leaders and forced a gubernatorial primary with Carl McCall. It's also worth noting that Mr. Paterson’s position heading into a potential 2010 primary is far worse than either Mr. McCall’s or Mr. Cuomo’s position leading up to their fateful clash.

In 2002, Mr. McCall had establishment support, a factor that eventually saw him through to the nomination. But Mr. Cuomo had what appeared to be an advantage in the polls. So while his opponent racked up one endorsement after another from elected officials and party leaders, surveys gave Mr. Cuomo the lead well into the summer.

A May ’02 Quinnipiac poll, for instance, put Mr. Cuomo ahead of Mr. McCall 43 to 33 percent—a lead that expanded to 15 points by that July. It was only then that Mr. McCall’s numbers came to life, and by mid-August he stormed to a 15-point lead—setting in motion that chain of events that led Mr. Cuomo’s face-saving decision to junk his campaign days before the primary. 

It’s far from certain that Mr. Paterson will have anything like the establishment support one would expect for an incumbent, and his position in the polls is a disaster: he trails Mr. Cuomo by 46 points in the most recent Quinnipiac survey—a gap that hasn’t budged almost all year.

Also, in 2002, Mr. Cuomo had room to maneuver because neither he nor Mr. McCall had a clear claim on electability. Throughout the spring and summer, there was no statistically significant difference between them in matchups with incumbent George Pataki: they both trailed by about 25 points.

But the difference now between Mr. Cuomo and Mr. Paterson is staggering: a 9-point lead for Mr. Cuomo over Rudy Giuliani, versus a 20-point deficit for Mr. Paterson.

It seems obvious where this is heading. Mr. Paterson can keep saying he’s running until the end of the year, and maybe even into next year. But then, with the state convention and a straw poll or two approaching, it will be decision time for Democrats.

Mr. Cuomo’s vastly superior political standing will make siding with him a no-brainer, and Democrats will line up to do so out of fear of losing in the fall and, more selfishly, for fear of alienating the inevitable next governor.

Mr. Paterson will then face the prospect of suffering humiliating defeats at the convention and any straw polls that precede it. Very possibly, he’d be forced to petition his way onto the September ballot. And he’ll be looking at polls just as miserable as the ones he sees now—massive deficits against Mr. Cuomo.

Sure, he could run if he wants to. But more likely, he’ll take some version of George Aiken’s advice to L.B.J. about Vietnam: Declare victory and get out.