49° Good Morning
49° Good Morning
Long IslandColumnistsDan Janison

Democrats be warned: Enrollment edge may not mean much

Nassau County Democratic Chairman Jay Jacobs during a

Nassau County Democratic Chairman Jay Jacobs during a meeting at the Nassau Democratic office in Garden City, Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2015. Credit: Newsday / Chuck Fadely

Democratic operatives, be warned.

Your party's enrollment gains guarantee no electoral advantage, as recent years' elections show.

Consider Nassau County. In 2008, Democrats surpassed Republicans in registration for the first time, capping a decades-long trend.

The very next year, Republicans won back the county executive and comptroller offices and a majority in the county legislature. In 2010, the GOP recouped a crucial State Senate seat.

Not only did Democrats fail to recover lost ground, their holdings slipped a bit more last week when Republican Steve Rhoads won a special election to succeed convicted Democratic ex-Legis. David Denenberg.

Some local Democrats grumble about party leadership. Jay Jacobs, the party's county chairman, clashes openly these days with such figures as Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-Garden City) and Long Beach Democratic chairman Michael Zapson. So far, however, nobody has stepped forward seeking to supplant Jacobs.

New York City's least-populous borough, Staten Island, shows a similar election landscape.

Unlike Nassau -- or Suffolk, where Democrats began outnumbering Republicans in 2013 -- the borough traditionally holds a Democratic enrollment edge. But these days it provides safe harbor to the GOP. Republican District Attorney Daniel Donovan is widely favored in a May 5 special election to succeed convicted former GOP Rep. Michael Grimm.

"There are still what you call Reagan Democrats, who are moderate to conservative, but who still register as Democrats," said city-based consultant Jerry Skurnik.

"Maybe more in Staten Island than in Nassau, these are ancestral Democrats, enrolled because their parents or grandparents identified that way. Nassau Republicans themselves are real moderate on a lot of issues," Skurnik said.

Other counties such as upstate Orange, Monroe and Onondaga also elect Republicans to key posts despite a Democratic enrollment edge. Albany-based Democratic political analyst Bruce Gyory said that in several places "the registration advantage is relatively slight."

"There's real cohesion and unity in the Republican base in voting for Republicans, whereas the Democratic registration is more diverse -- racially, ethnically, religiously and ideologically," Gyory said. "There is a larger percentage of moderate and conservative Democrats than there are liberal Republicans."

Moreover, a significant number of state voters sign up without party affiliation. In Nassau, recent figures show 219,964 voters registered as unaffiliated or "blank" alongside 373,686 Democrats and 328,085 Republicans.

"Independent or unaffiliated voters are not liberal voters. They're moderate," Gyory added. They change preference based on issues and mood.

Republicans have made electoral gains in off years, "but it's a different picture in a big-turnout presidential year," Gyory said -- with outcomes varying sharply based on higher turnouts.

All this affects governance. Progressive advocates, mindful of election and enrollment numbers, still see fertile ground for organizing in Nassau and Suffolk.

Make the Road New York, a nonprofit human rights group, and Assembly Democrats are pressing, for example, for Long Island to get a higher minimum-wage rate than the rest of the state given its high cost of living. The Island's Senate delegation -- as solidly GOP as ever, for the time being -- looks unlikely to comply.


We're revamping our Comments section. Learn more and share your input.

Latest Long Island News