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Why New York probably won't move its presidential primary to February

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, seen on Aug. 6

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, seen on Aug. 6 in Hempstead. Credit: Howard Schnapp

 A case can be made that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and the leaders of the State Legislature were right to have chosen April 28 as the day to hold New York’s 2020 presidential primary. The state could be pivotal in anchoring a mid-Atlantic colossus of delegates from Pennsylvania, Maryland, Connecticut, Delaware and Rhode Island.

New York rarely has held the key presidential primary in either party. However, it has played a significant undercard role in several Democratic races, including establishing Jimmy Carter’s weakness against Ted Kennedy in 1980, helping Bill Clinton become the Comeback Kid in 1992, and nailing down Hillary Clinton’s victory over Bernie Sanders in 2016.

If a single candidate wins three of the four early contests in February (Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina) and then wins big on Super Tuesday in March, when 14 states hold primaries (including California, Virginia and Texas), the Democratic race will largely be decided before the presidential caravan hits New York. But if those early contests are divided and inconclusive, then New York’s April 28 primary would be positioned to play a decisive role in selecting the party's nominee. That's why discussions about moving the Empire State’s vote to February will likely not bear fruit. 

The last primary before April 28 will be on April 7, which will leave three weeks for New York and the shared media markets in the bordering states of Pennsylvania and Connecticut to dominate the national media’s coverage. By the time the New York primary is held, I doubt that New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio will still be in the race. After all, could his plummeting public prestige recover from the likelihood that he would finish near last in his own state’s primary? De Blasio might soon see the wisdom of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s classy early exit from the race.  

Until you know which candidates are left running, handicapping the outcome of New York’s primary is foolish. But if the nomination is still in doubt by April 28, overall New York voter turnout likely would be high, somewhere between 1.9 million and 2.2 million votes statewide. A regional breakdown would look like this: New York City likely would cast 54 to 57 percent of the total primary vote, upstate 25 to 27 percent, and the suburbs (Long Island, Westchester and Rockland) 17 to 18 percent.

The candidate who wins New York’s primary will be whoever carries the voters within the so-called iron triangle that forms a majority of the statewide Democratic primary electorate: a coalition of suburban women, white Catholic and Jewish voters, and minority voters, especially black and Hispanic women. And the issues that would loom large in New York because of its diverse primary electorate include poverty and gentrification, gun control, health care, climate change and Israel’s role in the Middle East.

Still, there is a very real chance that the Democratic race will be all but over before the New York primary.  But if the nomination remains undecided by April 28, we will probably be discussing the strength of Democratic primary voters within that iron triangle as the returns are counted. 

Bruce N. Gyory is a political and strategic consultant at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, and is an adjunct professor of political science at SUNY Albany.

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