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OpinionColumnistsWilliam F. B. O'Reilly

Challengers for public office must overcome obstacle course

Early polling and ‘poison parentheticals’ inhibit political competition in NY.

Excellent candidates have been hamstrung with early poll-driven

Excellent candidates have been hamstrung with early poll-driven narratives that dry up fundraising dollars, not to mention public enthusiasm. Photo Credit: Getty Images / iStockphoto

I don’t know whether it’s possible for a Republican or a Democratic primary challenger to win the race for governor against Andrew M. Cuomo this year. But early polling and ubiquitous editorializing in the news media will make it all the more difficult.

It always does.

New York political journalists who believe in fairness — yes, they exist — would do their craft service in the coming months by eschewing the temptation to remind readers at every turn that . . . everyone who’s anyone knows that candidate x doesn’t stand a chance. I call these little bitties “poison parentheticals.”

“Rachel Smith, who’s trailing her opponent by more than 30 points according to recent polling, today called for across-the-board income tax cuts in New York State.” Or, “Underdog candidate Jamal Dixon, who’s struggled to raise money in his quest to unseat incumbent state Sen. Frank Desnos, announced today . . .” (Not actual examples.)

My inner cynic used to think some reporters did this on purpose, but then I found myself doing the same in radio and TV interviews. I wanted to sound smart and informed — anything but naïve — so I built conventional wisdom into many of my answers.

“It’s going to be an uphill climb for Johnson with his lack of name ID, but the point he makes is a good one . . .”

Somewhere Johnson’s press secretary is hurling pizza at a TV.

I should know better. The pepperoni slinger has been me in too many past campaigns to count. Excellent candidates have been hamstrung with early poll-driven narratives that dry up fundraising dollars, not to mention public enthusiasm. Low dollar hauls then perpetuate the she-doesn’t-stand-a-chance narrative.

In 2002, state comptroller candidate John Faso and I sat down with the political editor of a major daily newspaper at the Grand Hyatt in midtown, only to be told that the paper wouldn’t be covering the race until late fall. Early polling had Faso, now a congressman, trailing incumbent Comptroller Alan Hevesi by a seemingly prohibitive 20 points. The incumbent ended up winning 50-47 in a three-way race. Could early media attention have affected that outcome? You betcha.

Rob Astorino had a Real Clear Politics polling average of 32 percent a week before Election Day in his 2014 campaign against first-term incumbent Cuomo. Astorino ended up with 41 percent of the vote, winning New York outside the five boroughs. Artificially low polling numbers constantly cited throughout 2014, to my chagrin as an Astorino spokesman, proved devastating to the campaign’s fundraising — not nine points worth, but certainly a few. (Campaigns are a zero-sum game. Subtracting from 50.1 tells you the true extent of the loss.)

Phil Oliva, the 2016 challenger to Democrat Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney of Newburgh had it worse. He couldn’t even buy himself a bad poll. From the start it was reported that his was a non-race, even though Oliva is widely respected in political circles.

This throwaway sentence in a major June 2016 newspaper profile on the Oliva-Maloney race didn’t help: “Republicans are not giving Maloney’s seat the same high profile attention this election cycle.”

In the end, Oliva came closer on Election Day (44.4-56.6 percent) than any other congressional challenger in New York that year, Democrat or Republican. Without real money, and despite naysaying in the media, Oliva came within 5.7 points of taking down an incumbent.

New Yorkers of all parties vocally protest an “incumbent class” that somehow gets re-elected year after year, with rare exception. Then we make the job of challengers harder by dismissing their campaigns before they’ve even begun.

How about a late New Year’s resolution to lay aside the snap judgments and poison parentheticals until at least autumn.

William F. B. O’Reilly is a consultant for Republicans.

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