What History Doesn’t Tell Us About How Paterson Can Save Himself

The esteemed numbers expert Jerry Skurnik has responded to a column in which I sought to put David Paterson’s hideous poll numbers in some historical context.

In the column, I wrote:

A quick review of past polling finds that just three sitting governors in the last three decades have faced intra-party deficits as severe as Paterson's: Four months before the 1982 Massachusetts Democratic primary, Governor Ed King trailed former Governor Michael Dukakis (beaten by King in the ‘1978 primary) 68 to 20 percent; in March 2002, six months before the Massachusetts G.O.P. primary, acting Governor Jane Swift was 63 points behind Mitt Romney, 75 to 12 percent; and a year before the 2006 Nebraska Republican primary, acting Governor Dave Heineman was 40 points behind Tom Osborne.

 Of those three, only one, Mr. Heineman, ended up surviving. But that was because, unlike Mr. Paterson, he brilliantly capitalized on his accidental incumbency, gaining ground against Mr. Osborne every month, until Republicans finally asked, "Why change?"

Now, here’s Skurnik’s critique, which I’d like to respond to:

However by reporting only the poll numbers rather than the actual Primary results, Kornacki makes Paterson’s chances for next year seem much worse than he could have if he wanted to make the case that the Governor did have a chance.

For example, while it’s true that Dukakis did beat King, the margin wasn’t the 48 points in the poll cited but was by only 7 points. King gained 41 points in 4 months!  In Nebraska, Heineman beat Osborne by 4 points. Which means he picked up 44 points in a year!

With Swift and Romney, we’ll never know how much of the 63 point lead she might have overcome since she dropped out the race.

In other words, Kornacki’s historic argument as to why Paterson cannot overcome a 49 point margin in the polls 16 months before the 2010 Democratic Primary is based on a candidate who picked up 41 points in 4 months, another picking up 44 points in 12 months and a third candidate not running.

Look, I’m not saying David Paterson is in great shape politically. He’s not. He could easily lose. But after seeing countless candidates overcoming supposedly insurmountable deficits in polls to win, I’m not ready to write anyone off.

O.K., first I’m going to do the honorable thing and blame the word-count restrictions I faced. Because this particular column was for the print edition of the Observer, I was capped at about 750 words, so I didn’t have space to elaborate on the specifics of these three past examples, and why they are and are not analogous to Paterson’s current plight. (Also, I’m delighted to learn that someone else is familiar with the King-Dukakis ’82 race, but I didn’t think people would want to read much about it.)

That said, I brought up the past examples to illustrate how unusually awful Paterson’s predicament is: Out of the hundreds of governors who have served in the last 30 years, he is one of just four (by my count—I may be forgetting one or two other examples, which I’d love to hear about) ever to fall behind by 40-plus points in a primary. So that says something right there.

But to answer Skurnik more specifically, there is a logical explanation for why King was able to come back against Dukakis in 1982, and it doesn’t really offer much hope for Paterson.

Basically, King’s comeback was triggered by two things.

Number one, King poured $2 million (big money back then) into television ads, while Dukakis refused to return fire over the air. Instead, Dukakis and his top aide, John Sasso, spent their resources on field, assembling a volunteer army of more than 30,000. To this day, Dukakis remains dismissive of the importance of television ads, in part because of his experience in ’82. But while the field army probably was the difference on primary day in ’82 (when Dukakis won, 54 to 46 percent), the brutal King television ads that went unanswered for months were a major reason why King was able to come back.

And number two, King successfully re-opened the major cultural fault-line within the Massachusetts Democratic Party between good-government liberals and culturally conservative white ethnics. This is something that is particularly true in Massachusetts (and maybe Rhode Island, too): since there really is no Republican Party in the state, everyone is a Democrat. But there is huge ideological diversity within the Democratic Party. King had toppled Dukakis in the 1978 primary thanks to a rebellion from culturally conservative Democrats in places like New Bedford, Fall River and Lowell.

As governor, King lost just about everyone—liberals and conservatives—because of rampant corruption in his administration. Hence Dukakis’ early big lead.

But King’s television ads played the same game that George Bush would play against Dukakis in ’88—attacking him as a rapist-coddling softie who’d love nothing more than to raise taxes give away abortions for free. The “Republican wing” of the Massachusetts Democratic Party rallied around King and his comeback began. Turnout in the ’82 primary remains the largest in Massachusetts history. It was a Democratic primary in name only; conservative voters took part in droves, and voted for King.

The King example really can’t be applied to Paterson. For one thing, King was an elected governor, so he had a sizable base (or at least had a sizable base at one point). And aside from that, the bigger differences are that (a) there is now way Andrew Cuomo will face the kind of financial disparity that Dukakis faced, or that he will thumb his nose at television advertising in the event that there is a primary next year; and (b) the New York Democratic Party is dominant, but it is not defined by the same left/right cultural fault-line as the Massachusetts Democratic Party.

Running as “Ronald Reagan’s favorite Democrat,” as King did in ’82, was good enough for nearly half of the primary vote; running a comparable campaign in New York today wouldn’t get a candidate anything near that. More to point, Paterson and Cuomo are both liberals, so it’s not like Paterson is even in position to exploit an ideological fault-line—if one existed. Perhaps he could rally the black vote behind him, but he can’t do what King did. Massachusetts Democratic politics is just different. 

Then there’s Heneiman’s comeback victory in Nebraska, which I acknowledged and explained (in as few words as possible) in the column. Yes, he was down by 40 points and won. Hell, I think the deficit might even have been bigger—I swear I saw an early '05 poll that had him trailing Osborne by 80 points; I just can't find it now.

But there's a huge difference between Heineman and Paterson: Heineman never had a bad day, week, or month as governor (in terms of appealing to primary voters). He came in as an unknown, accidental governor, enjoyed a honeymoon, and then began executing a flawlessly-designed plan to use the governorship to deliver on “conservative principles.” His numbers improved every month and he steadily chipped away at Osborne's lead; more and more, Republicans asked themselves what the point would have been in changing candidates in '06.

Moreover, Osborne, a soft-spoken congressman, didn’t have the same platform to pursue his challenge that Cuomo now has with the AG's office. Paterson is just in totally different territory than Heineman: he has made a terrible impression on voters and turned the state against him, to the point that he is now a punchline. Heineman was only down 40 (or more) points because no one knew anything about him.

As Republicans got to know him, they warmed up quickly and his numbers improved steadily. Paterson’s 49-point deficit, meanwhile, isn’t the result of no one knowing him; it’s because everyone knows him, and is convinced he’s incompetent. He’s already missed the opportunity that Heineman exploited so marvelously in Nebraska. Coming back from 49 points down when everyone is against you is far different from coming back from 49 points down when people simply don’t know you.

So yes, I presented three cases of incumbents who trailed by 40-plus points, and two of them ended up staging impressive comebacks. Fair enough. But for the reasons I just outlined, those two comeback scenarios just aren't analogous to Paterson's plight. The only past example that really fits is Swift in 2002, who, like Paterson, fell flat on her face as an acting governor and racked up horrific poll numbers after a year on the job, and faced a threat from a very popular figure (Romney) who simply waited until the time was right to shove her aside.

Among the exceedingly few governors who have ever fallen as far behind a primary foe as Paterson has, Swift is by far the most apt comparison.

What History Doesn’t Tell Us About How Paterson Can Save Himself