Crime and Banishment

By Reuvain Borchardt

A voting site on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. (AP Photo/Ted Shaffrey)

Evan Roth Smith, founding partner at Slingshot Strategies, a Democratic consulting and polling firm, discusses the results of the 2022 elections in New York.

Slingshot’s poll, conducted two weeks before Election Day, which showed Gov. Kathy Hochul winning reelection by six points, turned out to be one of the most accurate polls taken in the gubernatorial race’s final weeks.

Slingshot ran communications for the campaign of Rep. Pat Ryan, of Upstate’s 18th District —  the only Democrat to win a close race in New York.

So Governor Hochul won reelection by about 5.7 percentage points, pending absentee ballots. What’s the feeling among Democrats — is it joy or relief? And how did it get this close in a state that Democrats are supposed to win easily?

I wouldn’t say relief. It’s a closer election than anyone wants to have statewide in New York. It’s a win, she’ll be the governor, and that’s what the Democratic Party wants. There will be some lessons learned, you might see some changes in policy and approaches, maybe in different parts of the Democratic Party, and changes in personnel in New York State. But I think most Democrats are happy to have this election behind us and are figuring out ways to correct mistakes where they were made.

There’s already been open speculation about the performance of the New York State Democratic Party, and whether enough was done both for the governor and down the ballot. Republicans did very well in competitive House races, and won almost all of them, with the exception of Pat Ryan. There were Democratic losses in the State Assembly and State Senate. And on a night when you look around the country and see that many states had Democrats making gains in their state legislative houses, New York might wind up being one of the only places in the country where Democrats lost seats on net in the state legislature.

Evan Roth Smith, founding partner at Slingshot Strategies

So Democrats outperformed expectations around the country, but underperformed in deep blue New York. What do you attribute that to?

There’s plenty of blame to go around. It’s certainly true that Democrats in New York underperformed Democrats in the rest of the country. I think a lot can be said about the state party, or really the lack of a state party, that meaningfully coordinated any sort of campaign that had unified messaging and shared resources up and down the ticket from the governor down to an Assemblymember.

Then there were smaller, but not insignificant, problems. You look at the state of the Brooklyn Democratic Party — which is the largest county by vote share in the state, home to, at least as of now, the most Assembly seat losses — and the inaction there.

The recipe for the statewide results is not particularly complicated: Republicans hit pretty aggressive turnout goals, really showed up for the election, and Democrats had a middling turnout compared to prior years. That’s not true for every area, but by and large Republicans showed up for this election in a way Democrats didn’t. If there’s any organization that bears responsibility for turning Democrats out, it’s the New York State Democratic Party.

Do you believe it was strictly campaign issues like turnout and messaging, or do you think there were policy issues as well?

I think there were legitimate policy concerns that drove voter behavior. We know crime was a major issue in this election. Lee Zeldin foregrounded it aggressively during his campaign. Hochul responded and she also talked quite a bit about crime and defended her record on it, enough to win the election. But something that I’ve been saying for the last few weeks is that many voters in New York City and New York State are interested in more than just the crime issue. The economic issues going on right now are very serious and affect a lot of people’s lives: inflation, jobs, wages. Both the Hochul and Zeldin campaigns got very focused on particularly the crime issue, which is very salient and matters to a lot of people. But in our polling and others’ polling, just as many people were very concerned about the economy. Particularly in an election that seems to have been so close, neither of these campaigns grabbed the bull by the horns when it came to talking about the economy. If either of them had done that, it could have moved things a little bit.

Both Democrats and Republicans I’ve spoken to agree that Zeldin ran a better campaign, though obviously he could not overcome the state’s Democratic registration advantage. Zeldin focused almost exclusively on crime. Hochul, it seems, in her ads, was not focusing on her record as an incumbent, but trying to hit at Zeldin, a challenger — mainly over his pro-life views. When polls showed that the race was close and her messaging wasn’t working, she pivoted in the final weeks to defending her record on crime and talking about Zeldin’s association with Trump, which was probably a better message for her to focus on: Polls showed that issues of crime and threats to democracy — as well as the economy, as you mentioned — were more important to voters than women’s rights. Do you think Hochul should have realized earlier on that women’s rights may not be as winning a message as she thought, and should have focused on other messaging earlier?

One of the challenges of politics is you have to talk about the right thing to the right people. Women’s rights are motivating for many hundreds of thousands and millions of voters across New York State. One of the things that the Hochul campaign was criticized for, and that they more or less corrected down the stretch, was that they hadn’t done enough talking to the Democratic base. For much of this campaign, reliable Democratic voters in places like New York City, Buffalo, Rochester, and the Capital Region didn’t hear too much from the Hochul campaign. You weren’t getting mail, you weren’t getting anything. But those are the people that you ought to talk to about women’s rights and say, “You really have to show up this year. I know you show up most of the time, but you really have to show up this year, because these things that you care about very deeply are on the ballot.” That is who you go to talk to women’s rights about.

Then you go into some of these swing areas, the tougher areas, places that are 50-50 like Nassau County, parts of the Hudson Valley, where you’re scraping for every vote, and you talk about persuasion issues that matter to independents trying to make up their mind. Independent and swing voters, they know where the Democrats are on women’s rights, they know where Republicans are. What they want to hear are messages that persuade them one way or the other on immediate, tangible things, particularly the economy. That was a challenge for the Hochul campaign to get right, to bring the right message to the right audience.

Pollsters have been mocked in recent years for being wrong on polls like the 2020 presidential race, last year’s New Jersey governor race, and the Brexit vote. But it seems many polls were fairly accurate in the New York governor race.

Polling analysis website FiveThirtyEight’s weighted average of all polls (which accounts for each poll’s “quality, recency, sample size and partisan lean”) had Hochul up by 7.8 points, within roughly two points of the final margin.

Your own poll was one of the most accurate, predicting the outcome within less than a percentage point — congrats on that! Overall, how would you say the polls did in this particular race?

In New York the polls seem to have been pretty good. We saw a decent amount of public polling. Every pollster has some misses; we certainly saw some misses this cycle. But a lot of the challenge was predicting turnout. That’s the hardest part of doing a poll — not necessarily who’s going to vote which way, but who’s going to show up in the first place and should be in the poll. If you were a pollster doing a poll of this race, and you thought this was the kind of year where Democrats and Republicans were going to show up in equal number, you missed. If you saw a turnout scenario with Republicans very motivated and Democrats less motivated, your poll was probably closer. I think, particularly due to some of the media coverage around the campaign that suggested an enthusiasm gap for Democrats, a lot of pollsters realized they were looking at an abnormal electorate, where Republicans were indeed more motivated than Democrats. The polls were conducted accordingly, and that led to some more accurate polling.

I presume the Republicans were more motivated because they were angry about — and pinned the blame on Democrats for — rising crime, a stumbling economy and high inflation.

But let’s turn now specifically to the Orthodox Jewish community. The numbers showed that, as predicted, they voted overwhelmingly for Zeldin, motivated by the yeshivah regulation issue: he got as much as 97% of the vote in some districts in Boro Park.

What about the turnout in these neighborhoods?

Turnout in Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods was pretty incredible this year, at least from the numbers I’ve seen so far. This includes Boro Park, Williamsburg, Crown Heights, Midwood, Kiryas Joel and Monsey. And this is not a new phenomenon: We see this growing every year, every election, particularly in these critical elections, whether it’s a tight governor’s race, a competitive mayor’s race, or a City Council race. We are seeing every year better and better efforts to grow turnout in Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods, and the proof is in the pudding. You can see it in numbers. The Orthodox Jewish vote has been for years critical to many politicians in New York City and state, but it’s only getting more important.

Long voting lines on Election Day in Boro Park.

With the exception of two Chassidic communities, just about all Orthodox endorsements went for Zeldin. They knew Hochul was favored, but they felt the yeshivah issue was something they wanted to take a stand on, even if it might hurt them.

But now that Hochul won, the question many in the Orthodox community are wondering is: How will Hochul treat the community now? Will it be, “You went against me, now I won’t talk to you the next four years”? Or will it be, “I see you were really motivated on this issue, you came out and voted in strong numbers on that basis, now I see I have to pay attention to you and work for your interests”?

There’s no politician in New York City or New York State who can afford to write off the Orthodox Jewish community. It’s just not politically possible. Even a politician who may not be on the same side as the Orthodox community on the yeshivah issue is still going to have to make an effort. They’ll have to try and convince, whether successfully or unsuccessfully, the Orthodox Jewish community that they are worth consideration, worth at least talking to, when it comes to votes. Because it’s simply too large of a voting bloc and too critical. There is no one from the City Council all the way up to the governor who can say, “I’m done with the Orthodox Jewish community.”

Other than the governor’s race, the race that got the most attention in New York was the 17th congressional district — in fact, it may have been the congressional race that got the most attention in the United States. In a district that Joe Biden won by 10 points, Sean Patrick Maloney, a five-term congressman who chaired the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, was beaten by Republican Assemblyman Mike Lawler. What happened there?

Maloney had represented the 18th district, but after this year’s redistricting he decided to jump to the 17th, which forced the 17th’s Democratic incumbent, Mondaire Jones, a popular rising star, to eventually move to the 10th District, where he lost his primary.

When Maloney moved to this new 17th district, which only had a small portion of his old 18th district, he lost the benefit of incumbency. And he ran against a very talented Republican candidate in Mike Lawler. And so Maloney simply lost against a talented opponent in a district where he wasn’t well known. It was the end result of a series of very bad decisions. Democrats had to spend a lot of money and devote staff and time to defending his seat, for someone who  never should have had to defend a seat. Of course, the punchline is the district that Maloney moved away from, the 18th, was the only swing district in the state that a Democrat won — Pat Ryan.

If Maloney had never moved to the 17th district, he’d probably have been reelected in the 18th district, and Mondaire Jones might have scraped out a win in the 17th district, even on a tough night for Democrats, because he had the relationships, the support, people who respected him and would have voted for him — independents and maybe even Republicans — on the basis of his record in office. But Maloney had none of that with the 17th District’s voters, so he lost.

Republican Assemblyman Mike Lawler declaring victory at a press conference in Rockland County (L) and Democratic Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney conceding defeat at a press conference in Washington (R), in the race for the 17th congressional district, last week Wednesday. (Hamodia; Reuters/Tom Brenner)

The Democrats lost a number of Assembly seats in South Brooklyn, in areas that are heavily Orthodox Jewish, Russian, and Italian-American. Republicans also flipped a City Council seat in South Brooklyn last year. It seems there’s a growing red pocket there, in an otherwise heavily Democratic borough.

There’s a lot of work for the Democratic Party to do in South Brooklyn. It is not a place where we are uncompetitive or can’t compete; it’s indicative of the problems within the Brooklyn Democratic Party. And these are not problems that are just going to go away on their own. Right now if nothing changes, we should expect to see continued growth of Republican votes in South Brooklyn. You look at Bath Beach, Gravesend, and how Asian neighborhoods in Brooklyn have shifted toward the Republican Party. It’s happening across the city. We will expect to see that trend continue unless something changes. The Brooklyn Democratic Party in particular, but also Democratic candidates and campaigns generally, have to be very direct about what’s happening, which is that the Democratic Party and Democratic candidates are losing the trust of communities in South Brooklyn. You have to put in work and listen to concerns. It’s not an automatic process. Particularly in New York City, voters vote against Democrats when they’re unhappy.

Do you think that Democrats got complacent thinking that once you make it to the general election you win easily, and they weren’t really paying attention to growing Republican gains among the electorate?

There’s a complacency problem for sure, but there’s more driving this. If you’re losing Orthodox neighborhoods, Russian neighborhoods, Asian neighborhoods, Italian neighborhoods, working-class neighborhoods, middle-class neighborhoods, you have a problem. It’s not just because of whatever’s on the cover of the New York Post. You have a real problem. The Democratic Party, if they want to regain those seats or hold City Council seats like Ari Kagan’s next year or the new City Council seat that was just drawn in Bensonhurst, you have to listen to the voters.

We know that if there was one single issue that was the biggest issue in this gubernatorial election, it was crime, and whether Hochul should have called a special session to make changes to bail law. Now that she won by a small margin, what do you think Democrats will do? Is the attitude “Zeldin hit us hard on it, but he lost, so there’s no need for changes”? Or is the attitude, “This election was really close because of this issue, so we really have to make changes.” What do you think happens with crime legislation when the Legislature convenes next January?

There are going to be a lot of Democrats who will want to pretend that this election never happened, that it’s totally behind us, we won, that’s the end. We will see how long everyone can pretend that it didn’t happen, that this wasn’t a bad night, a bad election for Democrats in New York. I’m not sure how far Democrats will go trying to undo some of the damage, and there could be an overcorrection as well. Whether we see major changes to bail laws in New York State will mostly be a matter of whether the governor decides to pursue it. But it would have to come at the cost of other priorities. Everyone knows it would be a big fight if the governor decided to undertake another round of changes. That is probably a decision that will be made toward the end of this year, perhaps for the State of the State speech in January.

This interview originally appeared in Hamodia’s Prime Magazine.

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