ALBANY - In a state where New York City is riding a rising liberal tide while upstate tacks to the right, this year's race for governor will hinge more than ever on the swing votes on Long Island and in the city's northern suburbs, political researchers said.
"The suburbs are crucial," said Bruce Gyory, a political consultant and an instructor at the University at Albany who studies voter trends. "You can think of the suburbs as a balance wheel," he said, referring to Nassau, Suffolk, Westchester and Rockland counties. "And 70 percent of that four-county suburban vote is cast from Long Island."
Democratic Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo needs those voters to run up a big win that would give him a mandate for his second term and a boost for a possible 2016 presidential run. A second landslide -- which Gyory defines as 60 percent or more of the vote -- would be the first by a governor since Herbert H. Lehman, a Democrat who served from 1933 to 1942. Cuomo took 61 percent of the vote in 2010, beating Republican Carl Paladino by more than 25 percentage points.
"Two landslides in a row would be very significant," Gyory said.
For Republicans, the suburbs are essential to combating Cuomo's popularity, his almost unassailable $33 million campaign fund, and a 2-to-1 Democratic enrollment advantage statewide.
Gyory said a driving factor isn't party enrollment totals, but turnout. Traditionally in governor's races, about 30 percent of the vote comes from heavily Democratic New York City, where many voters sit out statewide elections; 46 percent comes from more conservative upstate; and 24 percent comes from the suburbs.
Republicans are trying to tap into the voter anger evident in 2013 when Cuomo's poll numbers sank upstate after his progressive turn, which included a tough gun control law and a late-term abortion bill. Property taxes, which remain among the nation's highest, and state school aid continue to be critical suburban issues. Cuomo has focused on major proposals for each, but has been criticized by state Republican chairman Ed Cox for taking three years to do it.
Who could best exploit a suburban strategy will play a major role in choosing a Republican nominee. In the hunt are Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, billionaire developer Donald Trump and Buffalo's conservative firebrand, Paladino.
"These are not your father's and mother's suburbs," said Lawrence Levy, executive dean of Hofstra University's National Center for Suburban Studies. "If a Democrat wants to win in New York, they can get by without doing exceptionally well in the suburbs, but they can't run up a mandate without the swing voters."
"Cuomo knows what the suburbs did to his father in his last election," Levy said, citing Gov. Mario Cuomo's 1994 defeat. "He had a front-row seat and most of George Pataki's plurality came from Nassau and Suffolk."
A former top Pataki aide, Republican consultant David Catalfamo, agrees with Gyory that the impact of the New York City vote for Andrew Cuomo can be overstated. Catalfamo notes that last year's mayoral race -- by far a bigger deal in the city than the governor's race -- had a historic low turnout of about 24 percent.
Catalfamo also said Cuomo's occasional head-butting with popular New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio over whether to fund prekindergarten by raising a city income tax on high earners could suppress the governor's progressive supporters, now closely aligned with de Blasio.
"There's just a great unknown," Catalfamo said.
Gerald Benjamin, a distinguished professor of political science at SUNY New Paltz, acknowledges there are wild cards.
He said his research also shows that voter turnout is trending lower in New York City, and that Cuomo is less popular in the suburbs and rural areas, where voter turnout is better.
"A suburban candidate like Astorino might have some appeal in downstate suburban counties and areas around major cities," Benjamin said. He also said Cuomo is starting to face a progressive campaign against him and his fiscally conservative policies, which could erode his liberal base.
Still, Benjamin said he expects Cuomo will win, but "it likely may not be historic."
State Board of Elections records show that although each county in the northern suburbs and on Long Island went for Democratic President Barack Obama in 2012, they did so narrowly. Since the 2010 governor's race, the historically Republican suburbs have seen continued Democratic growth. Meanwhile, the ranks of voters enrolled in neither party rose, creating more swing voters.
Westchester has grown to 260,053 Democrats, 131,878 Republicans and 124,841 "blanks" -- or voters not enrolled in any party -- according to the state Board of Elections count in November. Rockland had 83,257 Democrats in November, while Republicans made a smaller gain, up to 42,439. Unenrolled voters rose to 40,545.
Nassau's Democratic enrollment swelled to 361,375 in November, compared with 324,117 Republicans and 213,003 not enrolled in any party. In Suffolk County, Democrats rose to 300,016 voters in November compared with 299,575 Republicans and 241,694 blanks. In 2010, Republicans there held a slight advantage.
Still, Republicans won county executive races in Nassau, Westchester and Rockland last year. Cuomo has built a public rapport with Republican Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano.
"Anyone who is not looking at Long Island as a big swing area is making a big mistake," political consultant Michael Dawidziak said.
That focus was clear in Cuomo's decision to close the Long Island Expressway during a recent winter storm and in frequent updates about measures -- large and small -- that he ordered to protect Long Islanders, such as sending 400 tons of salt to replenish supplies in the wake of recent snowstorms.