Seeking to interpret a single primary election as a harbinger of future national political trends is something of a mug’s game. Nonetheless, it is difficult to look at Andrew Cuomo’s 62-percent-to-34-percent primary victory margin in yesterday’s Democratic primary in New York State and not notice a few things that might have bearing on the 2016 election cycle.
There are, to be certain, some things about this primary that are specific to this race including the general air of scandal that has surrounded Mr. Cuomo for months, the lack of any competitive statewide races driving turnout, and even that the governor is, as Barack Obama once said of Hillary Clinton, “likable enough.”
Mr. Cuomo’s failure to get 65 percent of the vote against Zephyr Teachout, a previously unknown activist whom he sought to portray as a fringe candidate and whom he outspent by an enormous margin, will knock Mr. Cuomo to the back of the first tier of non-Hillary Clinton candidates for the Democratic nomination for President in 2016, but will otherwise probably not have a lasting impact on Mr. Cuomo himself. He will not be vulnerable in November and will still likely get reelected easily.
Ms. Teachout’s strong showing, however, demonstrates the enduring relevance of the activist wing of the Democratic Party, reinforces the ability of a smart but poorly resourced candidate to use social media and less expensive forms of communication to significantly balance out a huge fundraising disadvantage, and shows that establishment Democratic candidates would be well served to run with clear and compelling messages, rather than simply on inevitability and incumbency.
The role played by the New York State Democratic Party in this election is also complex. The millions they spent in support of Mr. Cuomo in a primary led to a lawsuit, now dismissed, by Mr. Cuomo’s opponents, but also probably was instrumental in pushing Mr. Cuomo’s percentage of the vote over 60 percent. However, the fact that despite the full support of the state party, Mr. Cuomo could still not muster two-thirds of the vote against an obscure opponent with a funny name is further evidence that the influence of party structures on elections is still in decline.
Mr. Cuomo, the scion of a famous New York political family, had been a cabinet member and attorney general before being elected to his current office in 2010. He is almost a caricature of a member of the political establishment. His showing yesterday cannot be seen as good news for that political establishment. It is too early to project any of this onto that other representative of a famous political family who is also entrenched in the political establishment, but the New York primary cannot be seen as good news for Hillary Clinton. It remains true that Clinton will almost certainly be the Democratic nominee if she runs for president, but it is increasingly clear that campaigning on inevitability and having mountains of endorsements from within the party is not an optimal strategy.
In 2008, Ms. Clinton was also the establishment candidate whose campaign had a strong sense of inevitability. Ms. Clinton lost that primary because an extraordinarily gifted opponent emerged, but also because when her initial strategy was not enough, her campaign adapted clumsily and inadequately. The warnings that a similar set of challenges, if not a similarly gifted challenger, may be in place in 2016 are now quite significant. Ms. Clinton’s future may depend on her ability to recognize and adapt to the changing environment. It is more likely, however, that she will continue to follow the true political establishment strategy and make sure no opponent emerges at all.
Lincoln Mitchell is the national political correspondent for the Observer. Follow him on Twitter @LincolnMitchell