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What becomes of swing voters in an era of political polarization?

Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) celebrates his re-election victory

Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) celebrates his re-election victory over Democratic challenger Perry Gershon, with then-Suffolk County Republican chairman John Jay LaValle, left, at the Suffolk GOP election night headquarters in Patchogue on Nov. 6, 2018. Credit: Barry Sloan

Long Island’s suburban voters swing both ways, politically speaking. Elections can favor either Democrats or Republicans — or both — depending on the year, the candidate, the issues. But that tendency is shadowed now by the intensifying partisan rancor in the lead-up to a presidential election in the age of Donald Trump.

Energized turnout among Democrats in Nassau County last November resulted in a Democratic sweep of State Senate races, while incumbency helped Republican officeholders get re-elected in Suffolk County, even as the county went blue for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and other statewide offices and Republican congressmen Peter King (R-Seaford) and Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) saw their margins of victory narrow.

Now, with another round of local elections in November and federal and state races next year, campaigns say that they will do what they always do: stoke partisan intensity to turn out the base, while trying to appeal to unaffiliated voters and disaffected members of the opposition party.

But some political experts question whether the highly partisan and divisive atmosphere will chip away at the number of Long Islanders who choose candidates based more on their record and character rather than their party.

Swing districts are in a bit of a “pickle,” said Dan Levy, director of Siena College’s Research Institute, which conducts polling, including on national and state races. “It creates a conundrum if both parties tack to the extremes to mobilize their voters, but they need to split that middle pie of the independents as best they can.”

Recent polling by Siena found little interest or intensity about the issues under debate in New York’s state legislative session, he said, but “intense interest in the daily national drama. It’s the extreme crisis  du jour on the national front.”

Levy believes Trump will dominate the 2020 races. “The issue will be Trump or no Trump.“

Now even some voters who have long ignored party labels in local and state races are questioning how long they can continue to do so.

“If I know a person to have integrity and is a hard worker, his or her party label doesn’t mean anything on the local level,” said Jim Morgo, a former Democratic county legislator who more recently co-founded the Bayport — Blue Point chapter of Indivisible, a group promoting political activism without endorsing candidates. “That was all before Trump of course … these are not normal times.”

Morgo’s Indivisible co-founder Jim Chant, added that polarization at both ends of the political spectrum has put at least some voters “into a state of outrage and that leads them to say I’m not splitting the ticket, I’m voting one way until this situation is changed.”

He added, “There is middle ground but where that actually is has become very relative … our politics has been weaponized to a degree that has become inflammatory.”

In Stony Brook, George Hoffman, a former Democrat who is now unaffiliated, has worked for politicians of both parties, and supported candidates in both parties as well. Last November, he said, he put up lawn signs for Republican State Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport), and Democratic Assemb. Steve Englebright (D-Setauket). But he sees shifts toward increasing polarization, especially at the congressional level.

“I’ve always looked at local government as providing services, so you don’t have a lot of ideological debates about cleaning up the parks or keeping the waterways clean,” he said. But, he noted,  it’s becoming harder to remain independent. “You have to pick a side. … I think the election of 2020 is all going to be about Trump and candidates will be stand-ins for the president and there’s nothing they can do about that. I used to evaluate the candidates based on their own record. Now I think Congress is a stand in for the president.”

While Long Island as a whole is a swing-voting area that is trending Democratic, “year to year it can turn on a dime at least among those moderate independents who can turn an election, who will switch parties based on national and local political trends,” said Lawrence Levy, executive dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University. While successful incumbents stay in office by persuading people across party lines that they are useful and effective, “it’s very hard for candidates to localize races in a national election year. There is just too much attention being paid to the top of the ticket in the free and paid media.”

The political parties, meanwhile, will be employing evolving and more sophisticated means of ferreting out votes and spurring turnout. In Suffolk County, veteran Brookhaven town Republican leader Jesse Garcia was recently drafted as county leader as well after withstanding the blue wave last November with a few Brookhaven victories and a winning margin for Zeldin . He said the party would push its message to motivate “ballot fidelity” in the base while microtargeting voters in the middle.

“I’m not going to give away the secret sauce, but it’s constant communication to the base we’ve identified through a variety of platforms as leaning Republican and persuading them, creating a sense of urgency because the job is not done after we elect a president,” he said. “In speaking to our base, we’re also speaking to swing voters who haven’t decided one way or another and persuading them on a regular basis. We do that again with micro messaging to them, determining the issues important to them. Voter contact whether at the door and at the phones.”

Evolving technology, he said, has changed how parties identify and reach out to potential voters, and the local party relies on the state and national committees “for assistance and guidance on those issues.”

Kyle Kondik is managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a newsletter that analyzes political trends and forecasts election winners, based at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. He said Trump’s results in the 2020 election may impact the outcome of local races, at least at the congressional level.

In the 1970s, about 30 percent of the nation’s 435 congressional districts voted for representatives and presidential candidates with different party affiliations, Kondik said. By 2018, only 34 did — of those, a majority of voters in 31 districts went for Trump in 2016 and for Democratic candidates two years later. 

“New York Congressional District 1 and 2 are both Obama districts that swung pretty strongly to Trump,” he said. “There’s been a little bit of a snap back because Democratic candidates put up strong showings, and if the president wins those districts by reduced margins in 2020 or loses them, that could potentially imperil King and or Zeldin. And I think it would be both a surge in turnout of Democrats and swing voters.”

Jay Jacobs, the Nassau County and state Democrat leader, said a surge in Democratic turnout led to the State Senate sweep in Nassau — which both put Democrats in several open seats and ousted several Republican incumbents, including veteran Sen. Kemp Hannon (R-Garden City) and Sen. Elaine Phillips (R -Flower Hill) — as well as giving a victory to Democrat Monica Martinez in Suffolk’s Third State Senate district. He said he saw less ticket splitting and higher turnout of enrolled Democrats overall.

“Dollar for dollar, you get more bang for your buck trying to get people who tend to vote Democratic to the polls than trying to get people who vote Republican to change their minds,” Jacobs said.

That said, he noted that ticket splitting still accounts for popular incumbents holding on to their seats when they do win. “That must mean they are getting some votes from the opposing party,” he said. “You have to identify who among them are actually persuadable, then which are more likely to turn out and those are the votes you go after.”

But, Jacobs cautioned, a party that sweeps an election shouldn’t “get arrogant. It’s easy to become arrogant after you win … You think you can have it all but you have to remember there’s another election coming down the road and not every voter is as bought into the agenda you might think is important to your constituency. Don’t get too far out ahead of the general electorate.”

While conceding that 2018 was “a terrible year for Republicans in Nassau County — we took a tremendous hit the likes of which we haven’t seen so often in the last few years” — Nassau Republican Committee chairman Joseph Cairo Jr. said the party would rely on its traditional campaign platform of providing services and not raising taxes to appeal to voters in local races Nov. 5. And it would look for votes beyond its base among moderates who may feel uncomfortable with progressive policies.  “I do think the Democrats are moving too far to the left, and that’s the voter we’re appealing to,” he said.

State Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach) cautioned against assuming that all Long Islanders are onboard with a full progressive agenda.. Even though he sees room for “big bold progressive initiatives on the Island,” he said it was crucial to appeal to nonpartisan voters more concerned with “fundamental issues” affecting their daily lives, whether lowering utility bills, cleaning waterways or fighting corruption.

“Trump has definitely changed the landscape in a way that has energized Democrats,” said Kaminsky, who won re-election in November and now serves in a Democratic-led State Legislature where progressives are pushing for comprehensive reforms. But “if you think Long Island is now a progressive bastion, I think you would be mistaking a moment for a movement.”


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