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Gyory: The bellwether along the Hudson

Photo Credit: TMS illustration by Mark Weber/

Everyone knows that Westchester, Rockland, Orange, Putnam, Ulster and Dutchess are swing counties in New York State politics. But why? What makes a region a political bellwether?

Think about it in terms of a five-prong test.

First, are a region's voters truly up for grabs? Second, does the area reflect the central core of a state's electorate? Next, do the voters provide enough heft to prove decisive on an election's outcome? Then, does the region play an important role in both parties' primaries?

Finally, do the political demographics place the region at the crossroads of the overall electorate?

When you put the counties from Westchester through Dutchess through that quintuplet of questions, the answers are all a resounding "yes."

Voters here are in no party's pocket. This region decisively swung away from the New Deal Democrats, enabling Republicans to dominate gubernatorial politics under Thomas Dewey and Nelson Rockefeller. It reversed field to support Democratic Govs. Hugh Carey and Mario Cuomo, before bouncing back as George Pataki's political foundation. Then it flipped once again, sustaining Eliot Spitzer and Andrew Cuomo's recent Democratic landslides.

In U.S. Senate races, these counties backed Republicans Jacob Javits and Alfonse D'Amato before supporting of Democrats Charles Schumer and Hillary Clinton. Indeed, Clinton's decision to move to Chappaqua to run in New York speaks to the region's importance.

In the 1960s, Queens County was the fulcrum: Half the state's votes were cast from Long Island through Queens. Today, that fulcrum point runs from Long Island through all of New York City to Westchester. The census shows the counties with the highest percentage growth rates run from just north of Westchester and Rockland through the northern tip of Saratoga County. The Hudson River Valley is now New York State's growth corridor.

It has certainly made the difference in competitive contests. In the tight state comptroller's races in 2002 and 2010, it was crucial for Democrats Alan Hevesi and Thomas DiNapoli to shave the leads of Republicans John Faso and Harry Wilson in this region, on the road to their narrow victories.

The region forms an electoral crossroads between upstate and the suburbs of New York, given that in recent decades, 70 percent of the gubernatorial vote has come from outside New York City. Consequently, when this lower Hudson Region shifts its votes sharply to one party's candidate, that party almost always carries the state.

The combined turnout upstate and on Long Island drives the statewide Republican primaries (91 percent of primary votes cast in 2010 were from these two areas), while the combined vote of New York City, with a boost from upstate, does the same statewide for the Democrats (83 percent in 2010). That makes the region from Westchester through Dutchess the connecting link. It alone has a balanced influence, representing roughly a 10 percent share of the statewide vote in both major parties' primaries, as well as the statewide general election vote. In regional terms, that's a unique and significant role.

The region also reflects the full cross section of our state's voters: urban in Yonkers and Poughkeepsie, suburban from Bronxville through Greenwood Lake, with rural pockets surrounding areas like Hyde Park. The region also underscores the national trend uncovered by the census of surging minority populations in the suburbs -- especially among Hispanics and Asians, while also reflecting the dramatic growth in the national electorate of college graduates, leavened with vibrant blue collar communities.

Finally, neither party enjoys a decisive registration advantage in this region. That means the growing ranks of independent voters are in the driver's seat.

Anyone wishing to win a statewide election should listen carefully for the political melodies carrying along the Hudson's bellwether. As this bell tolls, so toll the politics of the Empire State.

 

Bruce N. Gyory is a political consultant with Corning Place Communications and an adjunct professor of political science at the University of Albany.

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