Debate Performance Analysis

Tonight’s gubernatorial candidate debate was a net gain for Rob Astorino, and a modest net loss for Andrew Cuomo.  Held in Buffalo, the one hour debate among Andrew Cuomo, Rob Astorino, Green Party candidate Howie Hawkins and Libertarian Party candidate Michael McDermott is the only scheduled debate between Cuomo and Astorino.

Dramatically behind in public polls and with little money, Astorino’s odds of winning on November 4th are extremely long.  Desperate for any positive movement, he needed a solid performance tonight and succeeded.  It’s unlikely to change the outcome of the election however, but it will give him a boost.

Astorino is a smooth, polished candidate who speaks skillfully into the camera and he put that ability to good use tonight.  The format, with the candidates seated and with time limits strictly enforced, worked well for him.  He used his placement next to Andrew Cuomo effectively, tilting his head and pointing over at Cuomo several times to connect his attacks and his target.  He’s a practiced speaker, and used well-honed attacks while staying within the time limits.  He also effectively parried many, although not all, of Cuomo’s attacks.

Andrew Cuomo had a less successful night.  The limited time and multiple candidate format apparently required by Cuomo, with one hour and four candidates, ultimately hurt him.  He spent much of his time on the attack, thereby limiting his ability to talk about the long list of projects and accomplishments from his nearly four years in office.  Additionally, the strictly enforced time limits had the moderator cutting off several of his answers.  On the Moreland Commission question, an additional round of criticism from another candidate was a negative consequence for Cuomo of the multi-candidate format he insisted on.

Cuomo’s a strong speaker who has given many powerful speeches standing on stage at a lectern.  He’s also a larger and more commanding physical presence than Astorino.  Having the candidates seated reduced those comparative advantages for Cuomo.  Finally, some of Astorino’s attacks appeared to irk him.

It was far from disaster for Cuomo, however, and with lots of money and campaign allies he has ready means to move past tonight.  With $23 million on hand as of early October and scores of elected officials available as campaign surrogates, we will likely see accelerated attacks on Astorino in the coming days.  Astorino, with little money and virtually no support from elected New York State Republicans, will be hard pressed to respond.  Illustrating those differences, tomorrow Cuomo appears with Hillary Rodham Clinton in media-rich Manhattan while Astorino concludes his day by attending the Herkimer County GOP dinner in Ilion.

[Additional note:  One tactical move by Cuomo that paid off was having the debate broadcast only on PBS stations, thereby reducing the audience and further dampening any Astorino benefit.]