To appreciate just how bizarre it is that New York votes could prove crucial to deciding each party’s nominee in the presidential primary, consider what happened at an MSNBC-hosted town hall for John Kasich last week in Jericho.
Seated a stone’s throw from the network’s cozy set inside historic Milleridge Inn was Jane Baum of Huntington, a proud “liberal Democrat” and Hillary Clinton supporter who would never consider voting for the Republican Ohio governor, even if New York’s closed primary voting rules allowed it.
Yet she decided to come out for the event anyway for the rare opportunity to see a presidential candidate stump for votes—an experience that New Englanders know well in the Granite State.
“I feel like I’m in living in New Hampshire right now,” Baum smiled.
She wasn’t the only Long Islander enjoying the presidential election-year frenzy. Some voters observing the primary fight from afar even sounded like seasoned operatives, offering armchair analyses.
“I think it’s a total crapshoot,” said Baum’s partner, Todd Kupferman, referring to the GOP’s national nominating convention to be held July in Cleveland.
Several rows behind them was retiree Audrey Schorr of Woodmere, who admitted to tuning into Fox News to stay on top of the primary season.
“I watch Greta, Bill, Megyn…” said Schorr, rattling off the conservative news channel’s weeknight lineup, as if they were her own children. She was attending the town hall with her son.
Now pulling for Kasich, who was about to go toe-to-toe with MSNBC mainstay Chris Matthews, Schorr said she admired Ben Carson, the retired brain surgeon who finally dropped out of the primary race after failing to make a dent. She was also a fan of U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), whose delegate count remarkably has him still in third place despite his dropping out of the race more than a month ago after a humiliating home-state defeat. Schorr had nothing but kind words to say about Kasich.
“He’s utterly charming,” she said.
For Republican voters like Schorr, this presidential primary has been like a real-life Game of Thrones, with an abundance of Oval Office suitors careening toward the nomination.
At one point last year, 18 Republicans were competing for the nomination. Now only three remain—as reality TV star and real estate mogul Donald Trump leads both U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Kasich in the delegate count. An impressive showing in New York on April 19 could swing Trump’s seemingly narrow path to securing the 1,237 delegates he needs for the nomination.
On the Democratic side, former Secretary of State Clinton has a 244-delegate advantage over U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) going into Tuesday, not counting 400-plus super delegates who are expected to support her at the convention, at least on the first ballot. A win in New York could give Clinton a stranglehold on the nomination and provide much-needed momentum going into similar voting states like Rhode Island and Connecticut. But a surprise Sanders victory would give the self-proclaimed Democratic socialist eight wins in the last nine primaries or caucuses and set the stage for a bitter battle all the way to the party’s July convention.
“Normally New York is just the ATM on the political circuit.”
For many New Yorkers, this is the political equivalent of a 100-year storm. Usually at this point in the primary season, both parties are on the verge of coalescing around one candidate if they haven’t done so already. But this time, New York’s vote could swing the pendulum irreversibly in favor of the two leading contenders.
“In terms of presidential primaries, I don’t remember seeing this kind of activity and this kind of frenzied pace,” said Nassau County Democratic Chairman Jay Jacobs, a Clinton supporter.
On Long Island alone, Clinton, former President Bill Clinton and their daughter, Chelsea, have all made public appearances since the primary calendar turned from Wisconsin to New York two weeks ago. Sanders has not held an event on LI, preferring large rallies in liberal New York City, but his wife, Jane, did attend a canvassing effort with supporters in Farmingdale last week.
Jacobs said he couldn’t recall a presidential primary in which Democratic candidates actively campaigned on the Island.
On the other side of the aisle, Trump has held two events on LI, one of which attracted 12,000 supporters at Grumman Studios in Bethpage. Kasich engaged in two cable-TV town halls in both Nassau and Suffolk counties, giving voters an opportunity to more closely scrutinize the candidates. Cruz, who has been dogged by his off-putting “New York values” comment, has not stepped foot on the Island, but his wife, Heidi, campaigned in Mineola, Melville and Bellmore—although Ted made a few appearances in New York City.
For comparison, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the eventual Republican nominee in 2012, won all 95 delegates in New York without actually coming to the state because his main competitor at the time, ex-U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA), had already ended his campaign.
Here’s what a crowd of an estimated 12k Trump supporters rallying in Bethpage looks like pic.twitter.com/wXuidq4Q8r
— Timothy Bolger (@Timmyyy) April 6, 2016
All five presidential candidates have been all over New York City and they’ve made an effort to criss-cross the entire state.
“Normally New York is just the ATM on the political circuit,” said Siena College pollster Steven Greenberg.
The political climate is different this time around, however.
“New Yorkers get to feel a little bit like how voters in Iowa and New Hampshire feel,” he added. “We actually get to see and feel the candidates.”
Greenberg told the story of his 18-year-old daughter attending a Sanders rally at the Washington Avenue Armory in Albany on the same day she saw Trump speak at the Times Union Center arena in the state capital. The week before that she turned out for a Clinton event.
“I think that’s really cool for New Yorkers,” Greenberg said. “For my daughter and for many others, it was a civics lesson. It was a chance to see history and to see the process in action. I think anytime we have that, that’s great.”
Some have pointed to the 1976 presidential primary, which came on the heels of President Richard Nixon’s resignation before he could get impeached in 1974, as the last time the New York primary mattered this much for both parties. Forty-years later, New York is back in play.
Leslie D. Feldman, a professor of political science at Hofstra University, considers the competitive primaries as a win for New York in general.
“This is the best thing that ever happened to New York because if we have the choice of Hillary Clinton or Trump, we get a president from New York, which is something that we haven’t had in decades,” Feldman said, noting that three of the five candidates have played up their New York roots.
“Doesn’t everyone in New York want a New York president?” she added.
Political observers have also speculated that primary fever could drive people to the polls, with Feldman predicting lines down the block.
In 2008, the last time both parties held presidential primaries, 36 percent of Democrats and 34 percent of Republicans turned out to vote in Nassau County. Turnout was significantly less in Suffolk, with roughly 19 percent of voters coming out for both parties.
Despite the political frenzy, Greenberg suspects turnout could fall short of 40 percent statewide, but he’s hoping for record turnouts.
No matter what happens, for two weeks New York was front and center in the political world, giving the rest of the nation a unique opportunity to see what it means for candidates to come face-to-face with voters here.
Just ask Kasich what’s it’s like to stump on LI. When the audience got a chance to challenge the Ohio governor directly at the MSNBC town hall, one skeptical voter was not buying the Ohio governor’s claims that he’s appealing to New York voters and questioned where the candidate was getting his information.
“Who told you that you’re all that popular?” the man said.
Only in New York.