Sabato's Crystal Ball

History Suggests Double Trouble for Incumbent Trump

Paul Brandus, Guest Columnist April 19th, 2018


This is part one of a back-and-forth between Crystal Ball Managing Editor Kyle Kondik and veteran reporter and presidential historian Paul Brandus assessing President Donald Trump’s reelection odds in 2020. See the piece from Kondik here.

The Editors


— President Trump’s weak approval rating is a bad sign for his reelection prospects in 2020.

— His standing is reminiscent of previous presidents who have faced stiff opposition not just in a general election, but also in a primary.

Less than a year and a half in, Trump is in deep trouble for 2020

President Donald Trump talks of winning reelection in 2020, and he filed papers to run again back on Inauguration Day. But history suggests the person taking the oath of office 33 months from now will be someone else.

If the past is any guide — it often is, of course — it means not just trouble for Trump in 2020, but double trouble. It suggests the president, one of the weakest incumbents in decades, will attract a challenger from his own party. It also suggests that even if he holds off that challenger and wins the nomination, he will go down to defeat in November.

This is the part where Trumpsters scoff and point out that the president thrashed all 16 of his rivals in 2016 and that no one would dare take him on again.

But it’s different now. Trump swept into office a year and a half ago on a smoke-and-mirrors campaign powered by blarney and billions in free TV time. But in 2020 he’ll be an incumbent with a record — and a display of recklessness and instability that has turned off, if not frightened, tens of millions of Americans.

According to the RealClearPolitics average of all polls, Trump’s overall approval peaked in January 2017 at 46% and has gradually slipped since, hovering in a 37% to 44% band for the past year. As of Wednesday, his average approval was 41.9%. Fake news? I don’t think so.

What does this suggest about Trump’s reelection prospects? In the last half-century, there have been four times when a weak presidential incumbent invited a primary challenger from within his own party. None of these weak incumbents — Lyndon Johnson (1968), Gerald Ford (1976), Jimmy Carter (1980), or George H.W. Bush (1992) — was re-elected (or in Ford’s case, elected, given that he became president when Richard Nixon resigned). Let’s take a closer look:

— 1968: Growing opposition to the Vietnam War took Lyndon Johnson’s approval (Gallup) from 79% in early 1964 to 41% four years later. Sen. Eugene McCarthy (D-MN) challenged him for the Democratic presidential nomination, nearly upsetting the president in the New Hampshire primary. Johnson’s arch-enemy Robert F. Kennedy then declared his candidacy. LBJ, seeing the writing on the wall, announced that he would neither seek nor accept the Democratic nomination.

— 1976: Gerald Ford was a weak incumbent for two reasons: his pardon of Richard Nixon and a terrible recession. Former Gov. Ronald Reagan (R-CA) took him on in the Republican presidential nomination contest. After a tooth-and-nail fight that went all the way to the GOP national convention, Ford won his party’s nomination. But Ford was badly weakened, and he lost to Jimmy Carter that fall.

— 1980: Thanks to a recession and a hostage crisis with Iran, it was Carter’s turn to earn an intraparty challenge, this time by Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA). Carter vowed to “whip his ass,” and did — only to be crushed by Reagan in a November landslide.

— 1992: After winning the Gulf War in a rout, George H.W. Bush’s approval soared to 89%. A shoo-in for reelection, right? But Bush, backing away from a major 1988 campaign pledge, supported a tax hike to lower the deficit. That, along with a mild recession, caused his approval to collapse. Conservative commentator Pat Buchanan challenged him for the GOP presidential nomination and won nearly a quarter of all primary votes. A weakened Bush survived to make the general election, but lost in a three-way race that November to Bill Clinton.

If that’s not ominous enough for Trump, consider this: He’s at or below the approval of all four of those unsuccessful incumbents at this stage (Trump is at 39% approval in Gallup right now). Gallup approval 15 months in:

History is also against Trump in another big way: he’s the fifth president to lose the popular vote but win the Electoral College. So what happened to the other four when they sought re-election? Only one was successful.

And Bush’s 2004 win wasn’t exactly a landslide. He got 50.7% of the popular vote and 286 electoral votes against Sen. John Kerry (D-MA). Had the United States not been in two wars in 2004 — Afghanistan and Iraq — voters might have been more willing to change horses in midstream.

To recap: Trump faces a double historical whammy: He’s a weak incumbent and a popular vote loser to boot. Predecessors in similar situations have largely failed to overcome such hurdles.

And while Trump’s antics, Twitter rants, and unprecedented behavior in office win cheers among his base, it has largely turned off millions of potential converts elsewhere. His constant bending of the truth (also known as lying)   and gratuitous insults of voters — like those in New Hampshire, a state he trashed as a “drug-infested den” don’t help, either. Trump lost the Granite State’s four electoral votes in 2016; if he keeps shooting his mouth off, good luck there in 2020.

Speaking of New Hampshire, a very early Republican primary poll just out from American Research Group found Trump at 48% and Gov. John Kasich (R-OH) at 42% in the Granite State. Guess what? That’s almost exactly what happened there 50 years ago: LBJ won 50% and McCarthy won 42%. It’s still early, but history could repeat itself and potentially teach President Trump an embarrassing lesson.

Paul Brandus, a frequent speaker at presidential libraries and the author of the acclaimed Under This Roof: A History of the White House and Presidency (Lyons Press, 2015) and This Day in Presidential History (Bernan Press, 2017), is an award-winning independent member of the White House press corps. He founded West Wing Reports in 2009 (Twitter @WestWingReport) and reports for television and radio clients across the United States and overseas. He is also a contributing columnist for USA Today and a financial columnist for MarketWatch and Dow Jones. He previously spent five years as a journalist in Moscow and several years as a New York-based network television producer and writer.

Underestimate Trump’s Reelection Odds at Your Own Peril

Kyle Kondik, Managing Editor, Sabato's Crystal Ball April 19th, 2018


This is part two of a back-and-forth between Crystal Ball Managing Editor Kyle Kondik and veteran reporter and presidential historian Paul Brandus assessing President Trump’s reelection odds in 2020. See the piece from Brandus here.

The Editors


— So long as President Trump is on the ballot in 2020, history suggests he will benefit from incumbency.

— While Trump’s approval rating is only in the low 40s, some election models suggest that he would still have 50-50 or better odds to win reelection if that’s his approval level in 2020.

Trump’s reelection odds may be better than many realize

One might have done better in predicting the 2016 presidential election, or at least in anticipating the very close eventual outcome, by basing a projection of the national popular vote on the findings of several political science models released prior to the election. These models, which were compiled by James Campbell of the University at Buffalo, SUNY and printed in both PS: Political Science and Politics and here at the Crystal Ball, generally pointed to a close election. These models mostly made their predictions several months in advance of the election and were based on the incumbent’s approval rating, the economy, and other “fundamental” factors.

Most of the models, accurately as it turned out, showed Hillary Clinton winning the national two-party popular vote. But the average of the 11 models showed Clinton winning just 50.8% of the two-party vote, with the median projection showing her winning 51.0%. Both the average and the median were basically spot-on, given that Clinton ended up getting 51.1% of the two-party vote. Donald Trump’s strength among white voters who do not hold a four-year college degree allowed him to win the Electoral College because of the overconcentration of these voters in several electorally important swing states in the Rust Belt. National polls showed a similarly small lead for Clinton on Election Day, although Clinton’s leads in these polls were generally larger than her eventual margin for much of the 2016 calendar year.

I bring this up just to note that, as we begin to assess Donald Trump’s reelection odds, it seems possible that the polls and the election models will again be at odds in 2020.

One of the models included in Campbell’s 2016 survey was the Time for Change model, created by Crystal Ball Senior Columnist Alan Abramowitz of Emory University. Abramowitz’s model was one of just two to project Trump winning the national popular vote in 2016 (by three points), in part because it emphasizes the electoral advantage that an incumbent running for reelection enjoys, and 2016 lacked an incumbent. Trump underperformed the model’s prediction by five points in terms of margin, as Abramowitz himself suggested Trump would prior to the election.

The model gives a bonus to an incumbent who is seeking his party’s second straight term in the White House, meaning it very well could smile on Trump in 2020 while being more bearish on someone like George H.W. Bush in 1992. That year, Bush was running for his second-consecutive term, but his party’s fourth-straight term (Bush lost to Bill Clinton). The Abramowitz model also incorporates the incumbent president’s approval rating in the Gallup national poll and the state of the economy, as measured by quarterly GDP growth.

The Abramowitz model will make its 2020 projection officially using 2020’s second quarter GDP growth and whatever Trump’s approval is at that time. Still, we can plug in current numbers to give a sense of what the model might project. Right now, Trump’s net approval rating is -16 points according to Gallup (39% approve/55% disapprove), and 2017’s fourth quarter GDP growth (the most recent quarter available) was 2.9%, according to the most recent revision from the Bureau of Economic Analysis. Using those figures in Abramowitz’s model projects Trump with 51.6% of the national two-party vote. Even if Trump were to underperform the model again, like he did in 2016, it would still make the election a Toss-up, especially because Trump could win again without winning the national popular vote given the demographic patterns of his support.

So the United States could reelect an incumbent president with an average approval in low 40s? Yes. And, actually, that’s perhaps what we should even expect given the performance of similarly-situated incumbents across many different countries.

In October 2015, Clifford Young and Julia Clark of the international polling firm Ipsos — with whom the University of Virginia Center for Politics has partnered on some recent polling — wrote a column for Reuters arguing that Democrats were unlikely to retain the White House in 2016. That’s in large part because the Democrats were trying to hold the presidency without having an incumbent on the ballot. They created a model using the results of more than 450 elections across 35 different countries since 1938 that suggested a president with relatively middling approval, as President Obama’s was at the time of their writing, had relatively low odds of being able to hand off power to a successor of the same party. Even with Obama at slightly over 50% approval on Election Day, according to the RealClearPolitics average, the Ipsos model suggested the Democrats would only have about a one in three chance to hold on to power. They didn’t, despite Trump’s problems.

Incumbents get a boost in the Ipsos model, though, just like in Abramowitz’s model. Young and Clark suggest that as long as an incumbent is at 40% approval or better, that person is probably at least a little likelier to win than lose. So Trump, at 41.9% approval in the RealClearPolitics average, would be capable of winning reelection, if not outright favored, if that’s where his approval rating is in fall 2020.

There’s obviously a long way to go before the 2020 election. We have a national election this fall in which Democrats are very likely to register at least some gains in the U.S. House and at the gubernatorial and state legislative level (though perhaps not in the Senate, for reasons we have previously outlined in detail). Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2020 election could have a bad outcome for Trump and could even hypothetically force him from office, although there’s really no telling where the investigation could ultimately lead, and Trump may very well survive it. There are tons of other uncertainties, including the eventual identity of the 2020 Democratic nominee, the possibility of a prominent third-party candidate, and, perhaps most importantly, the state of the economy two and a half years from now. We think the decent economy is helping Trump maintain a weak but passable approval rating despite all of the swirling controversies of his presidency. If the economy weakens, Trump may dip back into the 30s in approval and further complicate his reelection path.

But assuming Trump is on the ballot, and assuming his approval rating stays around the 40% mark, it would probably be wrong to assume he’s an underdog for reelection. That’s not to say he would be a sure winner, but he wouldn’t be a sure loser, either.

The biggest mistake analysts made in 2016 was believing that Trump was such a weak candidate that he would prove to be unelectable even though a close reading of historical results, both in the United States and elsewhere, suggested that any Republican would be a formidable contender for the White House in a year like 2016, when the Democrats were attempting the difficult task of winning the presidency a third consecutive time (and they had nominated a weak candidate to face Trump). That same history, a history that is built into models like the Ipsos and Abramowitz models, suggests an incumbent in Trump’s position will not be a pushover unless his approval and/or the economy significantly decline from their present levels.

Empire State of Mind: New York’s Simmering Democratic Primary for Governor

While Gov. Andrew Cuomo is a strong favorite, his renomination battle may prove to be one of the most interesting gubernatorial primaries in 2018

Geoffrey Skelley, Associate Editor, Sabato's Crystal Ball April 19th, 2018



— As he seeks a third term, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-NY) is favored to win renomination in what could be a high-profile primary against actress and activist Cynthia Nixon (D).

— However, Cuomo often has upset the left and there may be a path for a challenger. That path likely begins outside New York City, where Cuomo’s numbers are weaker than they are in the Five Boroughs.

— Because New York has no runoff provision for primaries, the entrance of a third major candidate in the Democratic field — perhaps former Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner — could help the incumbent by fragmenting the anti-Cuomo vote.

The Empire State Democratic primary for governor

Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-NY) has led the Empire State since his election to the governorship in 2010. Seeking his third term in office in 2018, Cuomo hopes to emulate his father, former Gov. Mario Cuomo (D), who also served three terms as New York’s governor from 1983 to 1994.[1] Yet also like his father, Andrew Cuomo clearly harbors presidential ambitions. The incumbent governor likely hopes to make a play for his party’s 2020 presidential nomination, something his father never did. Mario Cuomo famously vacillated so much over a White House run that he earned the sobriquet “Hamlet on the Hudson.” However, the left feels great disdain toward the younger Cuomo, which might complicate his presidential aspirations. Additionally, that same enmity is a driving force among liberal activists who oppose the incumbent’s efforts to retain the governorship. Cuomo’s opponents now seemingly have a candidate to back in the 2018 Democratic primary for governor: Cynthia Nixon, an actress and activist best-known for her role in the notable HBO comedy-drama series Sex and the City, announced her run on March 19. Beyond her acting work, Nixon has been involved in a number of liberal causes over the years, particularly LGBTQ and education issues.

Could Nixon defeat Cuomo in the Democratic primary? The history of gubernatorial nomination battles in New York suggests that is unlikely, as does the simple fact that Cuomo is an incumbent, and incumbents are difficult to beat, whether one is talking about general elections or primaries. In the post-World War II period, 94% of governors who have sought another term have won renomination. Additionally, two April horserace polls augur well for Cuomo: Marist College’s poll found Cuomo leading Nixon 68%-21%, and Siena College’s survey showed Cuomo ahead 58%-27%. As things stand, Cuomo remains a solid favorite to win renomination.

But there are reasons to think that he might be vulnerable to a primary challenge.

First, Cuomo does not have the strongest grassroots support. Despite having $30.5 million in his campaign war chest at the start of 2018, Cuomo gathered most of that money from big donors. Nixon claimed — truthfully, according to PolitiFact — that she received more donations from small donors (i.e. donations under $200) in the first day of her gubernatorial campaign than Cuomo had in his entire time in office. While Nixon will never match Cuomo dollar for dollar, she could gain enough monetary support from small donors to have the resources to truly challenge the incumbent. Such a strategy brings to mind another recent insurgent candidate: Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), whose 2016 presidential campaign relied heavily on small donors but still raised almost $230 million.

Second, the aforementioned anger on the left toward Cuomo could provide an opening for Nixon to exploit. A major bugaboo for progressives, and an early point of attack for Nixon, has been what the left views as Cuomo’s failure to end the Independent Democratic Conference, a group of Democrats in the New York State Senate who caucused with the GOP and prevented Democrats from gaining majorities in the chamber after the 2012 and 2016 elections. After years of inaction toward bringing the IDC back into the Democratic fold, Cuomo helped engineer the dissolution of the splinter faction in early April. Cuomo’s sudden reversal to deal with a major source of criticism on his left flank may be evidence that he views Nixon as a serious threat. On Wednesday, Cuomo signed an executive order giving paroled felons the right to vote, a move seen by many as another attempt to shore up his progressive credentials.

Third, Cuomo’s 2014 primary election result and recent polling numbers also show that he could have trouble in the 2018 primary. On the face of it, his 2014 renomination win does not look particularly problematic. After all, he defeated Zephyr Teachout by nearly 30 points, 62.9%-33.5%. Nonetheless, Teachout won a larger share than many expected, “a signal of the potent dissatisfaction with Mr. Cuomo in his party’s left wing,” as the New York Times observed. Teachout raised very little money compared to the incumbent but still won one-third of the vote. Her electoral strength was outside of New York City, where she lost by about 18 points, compared to Cuomo’s nearly 40-point edge in Gotham proper. Maps 1 and 2 show the 2014 Democratic primary result by county result, first in a standard map and second in a cartogram with each county weighted by its vote share in the primary (i.e. counties with more votes are bigger).

Maps 1 and 2: County map and cartogram of Cuomo and Teachout margins in the 2014 Democratic primary for governor

Note: Cartogram (Map 2) weights counties by the share of the vote they cast in the 2014 Democratic primary for governor. Click on maps to enlarge.

Source: New York State Board of Elections

In the first map, we see that Teachout’s strength lay predominantly in the areas around the state capital of Albany and the Hudson Valley (the east-central and south-central parts of Upstate New York). But the second map, a cartogram, better illustrates Cuomo’s edge by adjusting the map to depict just how much of the vote in the primary came from the Five Boroughs, the New York City suburbs, and Buffalo (Erie County). Note, however, that Cuomo underperformed his statewide margin in Manhattan (New York County), which had the second-largest share of the primary vote and happens to be from where Nixon hails. The most liberal bastion in the city might be a place where Nixon could build on the anti-Cuomo vote that Teachout turned out in 2014.

Additionally, Cuomo’s approval numbers are lower now than they were right before the Sept. 9, 2014 Democratic primary. An August 2014 poll from Quinnipiac University found Cuomo’s statewide approval at 57%, with 76% of Democrats approving and 19% disapproving. A few weeks later, Cuomo won renomination with about 63% of the vote. But a February 2018 survey from Quinnipiac found Cuomo’s approval among New Yorkers at 47%, with 68% of Democrats approving and 17% disapproving. Similarly, Marist’s April poll found that 55% of New Yorkers rated Cuomo’s job performance as “fair” or “poor” while 42% rated it “excellent” or “good.” Among Democrats, 39% answered “fair” or “poor.”[2] Cuomo’s standing among Democrats is particularly important in a state that has a closed primary, which requires voters to register with a party to cast a vote in its primary. Should the governor’s rating among Democrats worsen, it could create the conditions where a Nixon upset might be possible. Additionally, Siena’s April survey found that only 49% of New Yorkers had a favorable opinion of Cuomo compared to 44% unfavorable, matching his worst favorability mark in Siena’s polling data set from July 2015.

Should it be just a Cuomo-Nixon matchup (ignoring any minor candidates), Nixon would look to couple Teachout’s relative success in both Manhattan and Suffolk County on Long Island (Cuomo underperformed his 2014 statewide percentage in each) with Bernie Sanders’ success outside of the New York City area in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary against Hillary Clinton, a New Yorker. As Maps 3 and 4 show, the Vermont senator did relatively well in most places outside the NYC metro area, including a near-draw with Clinton in Erie County.

Maps 3 and 4: County map and cartogram of Clinton and Sanders margins in the 2016 Democratic primary for president

Note: Cartogram (Map 4) weights counties by the share of the vote they cast in the 2016 Democratic primary for president. Click on maps to enlarge.

Source: Dave Leip’s Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections

Though Clinton won statewide 58%-42%, Sanders ran better inside and outside of New York City against Clinton than Teachout did against Cuomo in 2014. The fact that Sanders essentially fought Clinton to a draw outside the combined areas of New York City and Long Island indicates that an insurgent, anti-establishment type of candidate could be a draw in the rest of the state. To beat Cuomo, however, Nixon will have to improve markedly on Teachout and Sanders’ performances in the Five Boroughs, which collectively cast a little more than half the statewide vote in both the 2014 and 2016 Democratic primaries for governor and president, respectively. Despite his sagging ratings, Cuomo remains relatively popular in and around New York City. The February Quinnipiac poll found him at +26 in net approval in the city and +10 in the city’s suburbs, compared to a -7 net approval Upstate. Similarly, the recent Marist and Siena polls also found his ratings to be higher in the city and suburbs than Upstate. Of course, there are many more Democrats in and around New York City than Upstate, but we do not have data on Democrats’ views of Cuomo based on region.

In testing the Cuomo-Nixon matchup, both Marist and Siena found Cuomo with giant leads over Nixon in and around New York City but with a smaller edge in Upstate New York. Marist had Cuomo ahead 72%-17% in New York City and 56%-32% in Upstate (Marist did not post data for the suburbs) while Siena found Cuomo leading Nixon 63%-21% in New York City and 58%-28% in the NYC suburbs, but only ahead 48%-37% in Upstate. It will be interesting to see if Cuomo’s main political rival, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (D), offers Nixon any support (tacitly or openly). Notably, some of Nixon’s campaign staff come from de Blasio’s orbit. Cuomo might be vulnerable to attacks over problems with the New York City subway system, too, which could dampen his support in the Big Apple.

Much could change before the Sept. 13 primary.[3] One possible shakeup could be the entry of another major candidate prior to the July 12 filing deadline for state-level offices. Former Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner (D), who is a rumored gubernatorial candidate, could do the shaking. Putting credence to said rumors, Miner just set up a statewide campaign committee for fundraising purposes, though her target office remains undeclared. As for evidence that Miner might be a compelling candidate, note that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee tried to convince Miner to make a bid in NY-24, a congressional district currently held by Rep. John Katko (R) that Clinton carried in the 2016 general election. The former mayor opted against running for Congress, but she left open the possibility of running for governor.

A Miner bid might actually be good news for Cuomo. Like most states outside of the South, New York requires only a plurality to win a primary. If opposition to Cuomo splinters between two candidates, it will be difficult to defeat the incumbent. Even if Miner and Nixon win over voters who like Cuomo, it is hard to imagine the incumbent winning much less than 40-45% of the vote, even if conditions worsen for him to some degree. Given Cuomo’s penchant for maneuvering to do whatever it takes to win or to weaken potential sources of electoral opposition, one wonders if political players close to the governor might actually encourage Miner to run. Because a Democrat is very likely to win the deep-blue Empire State’s governorship in this environment, winning the primary will probably be tantamount to election in November.

An additional wrinkle is Cuomo and Nixon’s relations with the progressive Working Families Party, one of New York’s notable third parties. On April 13, the New York Times reported that Cuomo pressured union leaders to discontinue funding progressive groups supporting Nixon. Correspondingly, local arms of two major labor organizations — the Service Employees International Union and Communication Workers of America — withdrew their support for the WFP prior to the party’s convention on April 14, a development seemingly connected to the WFP’s possible inclination to support Nixon. Following the labor pullout, Cuomo’s campaign also announced that the incumbent would not seek the WFP’s endorsement, signaling that Nixon would likely win the WFP’s backing. Because Nixon could win the WFP nomination while losing the Democratic nomination in multiparty New York, she could make it onto the November ballot and syphon votes from the left away from Cuomo. Hypothetically, a strong Nixon performance as the WFP nominee could increase the GOP’s very small odds of winning the New York governorship in 2018. With that in mind, Cuomo tried to put the squeeze on labor groups and the WFP to discourage support for Nixon. However, the WFP endorsed Nixon with more than 90% of the party’s convention vote. It is unclear if Nixon will proceed to the general election with only the WFP nomination should she lose to Cuomo in the Democratic primary.

Should Miner enter the race, it is worth keeping in mind one prior example of how divided opposition likely aided an incumbent governor in a New York primary. In 1978, Gov. Hugh Carey (D) won renomination with just a narrow majority of 52%, but his margin of victory was 18 percentage points over Lt. Gov. Mary Anne Krupsak (D). The vote for candidates other than Carey totaled 48%, with 34% going to Krupsak and 14% to state Sen. Jeremiah Bloom (D). Both challengers had formerly backed Carey: Krupsak as Carey’s ticket-mate in the 1974 election and Bloom as a state senator who hailed from Carey’s home borough of Brooklyn. Polls suggested Carey was vulnerable. A February 1978 survey from Gannett News found that only 23% of New Yorkers rated Carey’s performance as “excellent” or “good” while 50% said “fair” and 20% “poor.” Carey’s enigmatic personality, his battles with the legislature, controversy over the death penalty, and the pressure of financial problems in the state and New York City likely played a role in Carey’s mediocre public rating. But aided in part by divided intraparty opposition, Carey won renomination and then managed to win reelection by about six percentage points over state Assembly Minority Leader Perry Duryea (R).

New York has a long but disjointed history with the statewide primary. It first used a direct statewide primary to nominate state officers in 1914, replacing the convention system used previously. But after Nathan Miller (R) defeated incumbent Gov. Al Smith (D) in the 1920 election,[4] the new Republican governor and GOP-controlled legislature amended the direct primary law to return to a convention-based nominating system for statewide officers while preserving the primary for legislative offices. Until 1967, New York’s parties nominated their statewide candidates at party conventions. Despite vetoing a similar bill to reintroduce statewide primaries in 1965, Gov. Nelson Rockefeller (R) signed off on a new law restoring them in 1967, and Rocky won the 1970 GOP gubernatorial primary unopposed. Overall, only six governors faced opposition in the 13 primaries involving incumbents that occurred between 1914 and 2014. Table 1 lays out the results in those primaries.

Table 1: Incumbent governor primary performance, 1914-2014

Note: *Denotes unelected incumbents who succeeded to the office upon the resignation or removal of the previous governor. Following approval of a 1959 constitutional amendment, unopposed candidates did not appear on the New York primary ballot, which is why all unopposed incumbents besides Gov. Al Smith (D) in 1920 have no vote data.

Sources: New York Red Book (1915 to 1921), New York State Election Board, CQ Press Guide to Elections,

As the table shows, incumbents have been quite successful in primaries over the years. Cuomo’s 62.9% haul in 2014 actually represents the second-worst showing by any incumbent governor seeking renomination in a primary, ahead of only Carey’s 1978 performance. No incumbent has ever lost a primary.

In fact, only once since 1900 has an incumbent New York governor of a major party who sought renomination actually lost his party’s support. In 1912, Gov. John Alden Dix (D) failed to get a chance at winning a second term when he lost renomination at the Democratic state convention to William Sulzer (D), who went on to win the general election in November. All of this history bodes well for Cuomo’s chances of winning renomination in the 2018 primary. Yet if he has only one major opponent, the anti-Cuomo vote could consolidate sufficiently to imperil Cuomo’s bid for a third term. The Crystal Ball will be watching closely to see if Miner chooses to run and to see if Cuomo’s position in the polls improves or worsens in the coming months.


1. Mario Cuomo lost a bid for a fourth term in 1994 to George Pataki (R), who also went on to serve three terms as governor.

2. Note that polls that rate job approval on a “strongly approve” to “strongly disapprove” scale versus an “excellent” to “poor” rating scale are sometimes difficult to compare.

3. New York’s primary for state-level offices usually occurs on the first Tuesday after the second Monday in September. In 2018, this would have meant holding it on Sept. 11. However, concerns about conflicts with the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah and 9/11 commemorations led officials to move the primary to Thursday, Sept. 13. Since 2012, New York has held its primary for federal offices in June due to a court order regarding voting access for active military service members. Yet instead of consolidating the primaries in June or some other acceptable date, New York is the only state in the country with separate federal and state primaries, a costly and pernicious arrangement.

4. Smith won a rematch against Miller in 1922 and won reelection in 1924 and 1926. He unsuccessfully sought the Democratic presidential nomination at the party’s wild 1924 convention, but later won the party’s presidential nomination in 1928, when Smith lost to Herbert Hoover (R) in the general election.