Pollsters On the Riddle of Gillibrand; the 20-Year Senator?

After some remarks by a panel of pollsters at Fordham Law School on Wednesday morning, moderator Whit Ayres, the president of the American Association of Political Consultants, wondered if he should even bother with a question about Senator Kirsten Gillibrand.

The Cook Political Report calls the Gillibrand race ‘The Race that Never Was,'” he said. “Is it worth talking about the Gillibrand race?”

“I need to do a couple of polls, so I hope so,” replied Jef Pollock, the founder of Global Strategy Group, who has handled the senator’s polling since her first congressional race.

In fact, the panel had already spent a fair amount of trying to make sense of Ms. Gillibrand, who, despite her underwhelming poll numbers, managed by some combination of luck and strategy to dissuade every big-name challenger on both sides of the aisle from running against her this fall.

Republican pollster John McLaughlin cited the senator as a sign of the Democratic Party’s weakness in the state, and the panel’s other Republican, Kellyanne Conway, said Gillibrand is in “perilous territory” by being under 50 percent against each of her challengers.

Mr. Pollock scoffed.

“The notion that a year into an appointed senator’s term, that they wouldn’t be that well-known—that that’s newsworthy—is just preposterous,” he said. “The only way to get known is to spend money. It’s the reason we’re here. We’re talking about campaigns and candidates that matter. Unfunded candidates don’t win. If you want to win statewide, you have to raise money.”

As Mr. Pollock pointed out, Gillibrand is “one of the best fund-raisers in Congress.” (She had raised nearly $9 million as of March.)

“Kellyanne conveniently said she’s below 50 percent. She’s at 49—against two out of the three. And yet, she’s totally unknown. Totally unknown!” he said.

“We don’t know her because she hasn’t done anything to know her,” said Ms. Conway. “You want her not to be known.”

“No, I want her to be very known,” Mr. Pollock shot back. “You’re going to know her, because you’re going to know her for the next 20 years as your senator, which is what I’m going to look forward to. Because she’s going to run this time, and in 2012, so she gets to spend money twice telling you how great she is.”

Later, Conway and Pollock agreed that the candidate profile that might have given Gillibrand some trouble would have been a sophisticated, small-business-owner type. Ms. Conway called it a campaign “that will probably never happen,” given the considerable coattails an incumbent President Obama could bring to New York in 2012.

“Let’s be clear: A lot of the reason people didn’t want to run is because they have to run again in two years, and that’s a really unique situation,” Ms. Conway said. (Ms. Gillibrand has to run this year, because it’s the election following her appointment, and again in two years, because that’s when the six-year Senate term is scheduled to end.)

“The competition is not what I expected, to be honest,” Pollock conceded, later describing the pro–Wall Street quasi-campaign of Harold Ford Jr. as “a colossal mistake.”

When there wasn’t much left to say, the other Democrat on the panel, Joel Benenson summed it up.

“So, we all spent five minutes talking about a race that I think we readily admit we shouldn’t be talking about,” he said, to laughs from the crowd.

Pollsters On the Riddle of Gillibrand; the 20-Year Senator?