ALBANY -- Republican candidate for governor Rob Astorino recently said Democratic Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo "is a thug and a bully, and that's all he knows." Cuomo, in kicking off his campaign last week, called Astorino an "extremist," adding: "Those hyper conservatives, you cannot participate with . . . [them] in a democracy."
Welcome to the 2014 campaign for governor. Though civility was never a strong suit in New York's politics, the political discourse in this campaign has gone smashmouth.
Those who study political civility, or the lack of it, say the nastiness can turn off voters and is a factor fueling a significant decline in turnout.
"The big story here is turnout and the disaffection from politics," said Gerald Benjamin, distinguished professor of political science at the State University of New York at New Paltz. "Partly it's corruption, partly it's the nature of discourse, the lack of civility of the discourse."
What supporters wantBut in an era of polarized national politics, many politicians keep using the negative attacks for one reason: they appeal to core supporters.
"They work," said Steven Greenberg of the Siena College poll, "because you are giving them information they don't like about a candidate."
The Sept. 9 primary drew 10.1 percent of Democrats. In 1982, the gubernatorial primary between Mario Cuomo and Ed Koch drew nearly 39 percent and began a slide to less that 16 percent in the 2006 Democratic primary for governor, according to the state Board of Elections.
A year ago, the general election for New York City mayor drew 20 percent of voters. For more than 30 years, New York State's voter turnout has been well below the national average, including 50th in the last midterm congressional elections.
Neither Cuomo's nor Astorino's campaigns would discuss negative advertising.
This year, both campaigns have been on the attack.
For example, when Cuomo was asked in a radio interview to comment on Astorino's ethics proposals, the governor said with a chuckle: "Yeah, that's funny. Good. I'm glad he did that, and he's free to do it, put forth a proposal."
Weeks later, Astorino responded to a Cuomo attack ad accusing the Republican of corruption and hiring allies to the payroll in Westchester, where he is county executive. Astorino threatened legal action against TV stations to force them to drop what he called a false and defamatory ad.
In June, the state Democratic Committee headed by Cuomo referred to Astorino as "poor little Robbie." Later, Astorino's campaign claimed Cuomo's refusal to debate his primary opponent was because his criminal defense lawyers advised against it, or "the governor is acting like a total jerk."
Cuomo's campaign responded: "The Astorino campaign has sunk to a new low with its cheap, demeaning dialogue. They wonder why no one takes them seriously."
Wednesday, Astorino's latest Internet ad ridiculed the campaign's tone by claiming Cuomo "locked Santa in a chimney," pushed Humpty Dumpty, and is a "unicorn killer," while little girls screamed, "He's a monster!" The ad called for more substantive discourse, but warned if "Cuomo can make up stories about Rob Astorino . . . two can play that game."
It's not all name-calling. Cuomo has used TV ads to accuse Astorino of racism in connection with his fight with the federal government to make low-income housing in Westchester County subject to local zoning laws, which, for example, could restrict the location of subsidized housing towers. Cuomo also has accused Astorino of hiring some friends, relatives and political allies, which Astorino defends as hiring people he trusts.
Astorino has accused Cuomo of corruption for directing his top aides to get involved in the Moreland Commission on public corruption, then abruptly shutting down the investigative panel after he struck a political deal with the State Legislature for ethics measures.
A need to pull backSometimes the rhetoric has gotten so out of control that the campaigns pulled back a bit.
Former Gov. David A. Paterson, who provided the Democratic Committee's "poor little Robbie" attack, later said he regretted it.
In June, an independent group opposed to Cuomo's gun control law ran a fundraising ad on the Internet for Astorino using World War II images. The "D-Day Money Bomb" ad showed pictures of soldiers' graves and Cuomo, with the line "remove tyrants." Astorino's campaign kept the money, but said "we would always prefer that discretion be used in imagery."
Some of this rhetoric is just political hardball thrown a little closer to the head than usual. But some of it is just downright uncivil, said Benjamin at SUNY New Paltz, citing the Democratic Committee's jab at Astorino's height.
"My reaction was that it was a schoolyard thing," Benjamin said. "It's unworthy of a statewide campaign for one of the most important offices in the United States. It was name-calling for name-calling's sake."
James Campbell, distinguished professor at the University at Buffalo, who specializes in politics and voter behavior, said, "Today, the nation and political parties are highly polarized, candidates within parties are hypercompetitive. " . . . Once one side takes a cheap shot, the other wants to retaliate."
A means to mobilizeBut Campbell, who is writing a book on polarized politics, said there's another reason for the harsher tone. "While true independents may be turned off by polarized parties and the rhetoric that accompanies them, partisans are mobilized by it," he said. "This may be another reason for harsh tones. Parties are more dependent than they used to be for votes from their ideological bases."
He also said a "segmented media" feels less of a need to be balanced and respectful to each side because their audience is largely sharing the same viewpoint.
Most voters will say they don't like candidates to go negative, Siena's Greenberg said. But most politicians still do it because those who study campaigns say claiming a negative against an opponent is easier and often more effective than proving a positive about themselves.
"This ain't beanbag," said Quinnipiac University pollster Maurice Carroll, quoting the century-old axiom meaning that politics is not a child's game.
"The idea that the other guy is evil -- that's a spillover from Washington," said Carroll, a former New York and New Jersey political reporter for more than 40 years. He blames the weakening of political parties and the rise of independently funded and directed candidacies. "It's all individual now," he said. "It was more institutional, not personal. There wasn't the same impetus to take a shot at somebody."