Much of the growing sense of inevitability about Hillary Clinton’s bid for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination revolves around the issue of electability. Polls show her running well these days against prospective Republican opponents, which she buttresses with references to the breadth of her own landslide Senate reelection victory last fall in New York.
But that race is a story with two sides. There is no doubt that a case for “Hillary the Vote Getter” can be made with cold, hard facts. She was reelected in 2006 with 67 percent of the vote, 12 percentage points better than her first run in 2000. She won 58 of the Empire State’s 62 counties (after carrying only 15 six years earlier). And she swept every region of the state, most notably the vast Republican-oriented upstate sector, by comfortable margins. The latter is a clear demonstration, her proponents say, of her ability to make inroads in “Red America” on a wider scale in 2008.
Figure 1. HILLARY THE VOTE GETTER
There is no question that Hillary Clinton did much better at the ballot box in 2006 than her initial Senate run six years earlier. Then, she relied heavily on the votes from Democratic New York City, as she lost both New York City’s suburbs and the large upstate region to Republican Rep. Rick Lazio. Last year, however, she won all parts of the state easily, with her share of the vote from 2000 increasing by 17 percentage points in the suburbs and 13 points upstate.
|2000 Senate||2006 Senate|
of Total Vote
|Margin (in votes)||Hillary’s % of
|Margin (in votes)|
|New York City||74%||Clinton by 1,056,489||83%||Clinton by 875,157|
|Suburbs||45%||Lazio by 134,240||62%||Clinton by 263,057|
|Upstate||47%||Lazio by 90,669||60%||Clinton by 478,025|
|STATEWIDE||55%||Clinton by 831,580||67%||Clinton by 1,616,239|
Note: The suburbs include Nassau, Rockland, Suffolk and Westchester counties.
Source: America Votes 24, 27 (CQ Press).
In winning her initial Senate victory in 2000, Hillary Clinton carried just 15 of New York’s 62 counties. In her landslide reelection in 2006, she carried 58.
But in many respects, her 2006 election was a contest in name only. The conditions were the opposite of 2000, when her campaign for the Senate was a high-stakes tussle from start to finish—first against Rudy Giuliani (who aborted his bid after receiving a diagnosis of prostate cancer) and then Long Island Rep. Rick Lazio, who matched Clinton virtually dollar for dollar in campaign fundraising. (Both sides spent more than $40 million apiece.)
In 2006, though, Clinton faced a little known, under-financed challenger in former Yonkers Mayor John Spencer, who essentially amounted to a human “none of the above” line. While Spencer was unable to muster even $6 million for his campaign, Hillary spent nearly $35 million. And this in an environment where New York Republicans were already in active meltdown.
It was not so long ago that the GOP ruled the roost in New York, led by politicians such as Nelson Rockefeller and Jacob Javits. But over the last decade or two, it has become about as reliably Democratic as any state in the country. Republicans have not carried New York in presidential voting since 1984, have not captured a Senate seat since 1992, and since 2000 have seen their number of House seats dwindle across the state from 12 to six. To boot, the Democratic registration advantage, which was barely 1 million voters two decades ago, had swelled to more than 2.3 million by early this year. In short, New York is now a state where any credible Democrat runs with a stiff wind at his or her back.
As such, the more intriguing comparison is not Clinton against her Republican rivals, but Hillary as measured against the vote-getting performances of her Democratic ticketmates. And in 2000 and 2006, she trailed the top of the party’s ticket in New York each time. In 2000, Democratic presidential standard-bearer Al Gore took 60 percent of the statewide vote, while Clinton drew 55 percent. In 2006, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Eliot Spitzer polled 70 percent, while Clinton garnered 67 percent. And Spitzer, the state’s hard-charging attorney general at the time, was running an open-seat race to succeed retiring Republican Gov. George Pataki, while Clinton had the advantage of incumbency in seeking reelection.
Figure 2. CAUSE FOR PAUSE?
Hillary Clinton won both of her Senate elections in New York by comfortable margins, but each time drew a smaller share of the vote than the candidate at the top of the Democratic ticket–presidential nominee Al Gore in 2000 and gubernatorial entry Eliot Spitzer in 2006.
|Democratic Candidate||Office Sought||% of Total Vote||Margin (in votes)|
|2000 NY Election:|
|Al Gore||President||60%||Gore by 1,704,323|
|HILLARY CLINTON||Senator||55%||Clinton by 831,580|
|2006 NY Election:|
|Eliot Spitzer||Governor||70%||Spitzer by 1,812,374|
|HILLARY CLINTON||Senator||67%||Clinton by 1,616,239|
Source: America Votes 27 (CQ Press).
In only 12 of New York’s 62 counties in 2006 did Hillary Clinton draw a higher share of the vote than her Democratic ticketmate for governor, Eliot Spitzer. (Percentages are based on a comparison of Clinton’s share of the total vote for Senate with Spitzer’s share of the total vote for governor.)
Altogether, Spitzer drew a higher share of the vote in his race than Clinton in hers in 50 counties. Among them were every borough of New York City except the Bronx, all the major suburban counties including Westchester (where the Clintons have settled in Chappaqua), and the vast majority of counties in upstate New York (including those that contain the major population centers of Albany, Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse). In a number of counties, Spitzer’s advantage was significant–5 percentage points or more.
The dozen counties where Clinton drew a higher share of the vote in 2006 than Spitzer were an eclectic lot, clustered in three separate parts of the diverse upstate region–a half dozen counties that ring Buffalo, a handful along the Canadian border, and several in or near the Hudson River Valley.
Her supporters maintain that her ability to run well anywhere in upstate New York outside the Democratic cities is a tribute to her persistence and conspicuous attention to detail. She arrived in New York for her 2000 campaign with considerable political baggage–seen by many as a highly partisan First Lady and vulnerable to charges of being a carpetbagger and opportunist.
But from the start, she made it her point to woo voters on the most hostile terrain. She launched her candidacy in the summer of 1999 in Pindars Corners in rural upstate New York on the farm of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the state’s outgoing Democratic senator. Clinton followed her announcement with a “Listening Tour” through upstate counties. According to Michael Tomasky in his book, Hillary’s Turn, she was a sensitive listener: “She arrived at each venue with pen in hand and a notebook on her lap,” he wrote. “… She constantly scribbled notes as people spoke.”
As the 2000 campaign wore on, she repeatedly appeared across the region, not just in the Democratic cities, but in the more Republican-oriented small towns and villages in between. It was for more than quick stops, as she often spent hours at a time meeting and greeting voters throughout the economically challenged, often ignored upstate region. In 2000, she carved out a beachhead in this large swath of the state; in 2006 she significantly expanded it.
What do her inroads in upstate New York mean for her presidential prospects in 2008? Probably not much in terms of predicting her electability on a national scale. “As upstate New York goes so goes Ohio is sort of a stretch,” says Lee Miringoff, the director of the Marist College Poll in Poughkeepsie. “But it does show that she wears well over time,” he adds. “And that probably bodes well for her.”