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Greenfield Jeff Greenfield is senior analyst for CNN. He is providing Web-exclusive analysis during Election 2000.

Jeff Greenfield: Margins of victory in New York

May 24, 2000
Web posted at: 12:15 p.m. EDT (1615 GMT)

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- As much as I hate predictions, I'm willing to bet vast sums of money and/or significant body parts on the following assertions:

1. Al Gore will carry the state of New York by a double-digit margin.

2. Hillary Rodham Clinton will win an overwhelming majority of the votes in New York city.

3. The great majority of New Yorkers will decide that the "carpetbagger" issue is of no importance to them.

Now: From these all-but-certainties, can you tell who will win the Senate race in New York?

No.

Why not? Because in politics, almost everything of significance occurs "on the margin." Victory or defeat depends, in most cases, not on huge shifts of voters, but of relatively small movements between parties and candidates.

Yes, there are times when the shifts are seismic. If, for example, a Republican candidate wins a plurality of union households, as Nixon did in 1972 and as Reagan did in 1984, what you get is a landslide.

But in most cases, that's not what happens. Bill Clinton, for example, did not win the male vote either in 1992 or in 1996. What he did was to tie Bush and Dole in that category; given the huge gender gap, the women's vote swept him into the White House and kept him there.

Similarly, George W. Bush does not have to win the women's vote to win the White House; if he keeps the margin close among female voters, the men's vote will propel him to victory.

So how does this point play out in the New York race?

First, the all-but-certain Gore victory in that state is likely to be a "low turnout" victory. In 1964, by contrast, when Lyndon Johnson's 2.7 million vote margin in that state led to Robert Kennedy's Senate win, countless voters were driven to the polls out of fear of Barry Goldwater's "extremism." So far, at least, there's no sign that Bush inspires anything like that fear. Remember: Sen. Al D'Amato won re-election to the Senate from New York in 1992, even though Bill Clinton carried the state by 16 points.

Second: With the exception of the late Sen. Jacob Javits, Republicans never carry New York city. In fact, If Rick Lazio can win about 30 percent of the city vote, he's likely to win the state. Moreover, those percentages are almost meaningless because they do not measure turnout. When New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani was the likely GOP nominee, Democrats could hope for a massive turnout in minority neighborhoods to express their unhappiness with the Mayor's stewardship. Absent Giuliani, that turnout factor becomes a big question mark.

Third, the fact that "most" New Yorkers aren't bothered by the carpetbagger issue isn't the right question. What matters is how many New Yorkers who might otherwise vote for a Democrat will not vote for Hillary because they regard her as an interloper? Even if we're talking about 3 or 4 percent, that's roughly the margin by which Mario Cuomo was retired in 1994 as New York governor.

If you're a Hillary supporter, you can put the same approach to work for her. Of course she will not win upstate New York, but if her persistent campaigning upstate reduces the normal GOP margin of victory in that region, it will go a long way toward putting her in the Senate.

So keep this point in mind the next time you are overwhelmed by a torrent of poll numbers. Even if the raw numbers are right -- and even if polls five and a half months out are really measuring voter sentiment -- they may be telling you nothing about what will really decide the election.

 
ELECTION 2000

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Wednesday, May 24, 2000


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