Friday, February 08, 2002


New York Governor George Pataki (R) is, by almost every measure, well positioned to win re-election this year. He has no primary opposition (which is a key incumbent killer). He's been given relatively high marks for his performance following the 11th of September. His overall job approval rating is reasonably good. He's raised a ton of dough. Best of all, he has two challengers, State Comptroller Carl McCall and former HUD Secretary Andrew Cuomo, who are already at each other's throats.

The primary will be held on September 10, which leaves the eventual Democratic nominee not much time to put together a good general election campaign. Generally speaking, what happens in situations like this is that both challengers raise a lot of money but end up spending it all in the primary. And much, if not most, of those expenditures go to negative advertisements. Cuomo says McCall is an incompetent fool. McCall says Cuomo is arrogant and unqualified. All of it works to the benefit of Governor Pataki.

And yet. I suspect that Governor Pataki will win in November, but with the barest of majorities (he barely got a majority of the vote in 1998, when he had virtually no opposition). Pataki's problem is that conservatives are disenchanted with him. They think he's become Mario-lite. Conservatives will never vote for either McCall or Cuomo. But they might not vote at all (there's no Senate race this year and the contested House races are few).

Mid-term elections are largely determined by small increases/decreases at the margins of turnout. If base Republican voter turnout declines 4% and base Democratic voter turnout increases 3%, Pataki's margin of comfort dwindles. One can't yet rank the New York gubernatorial race a toss-up. But it's a lot closer than you think. Over to you, Charlie Cook.