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Yes, a New York governor. As in former governor George Pataki. He’s actively campaigning with multiple visits to New Hampshire, a planned visit to Iowa and appearances in other states. His interest? High. His chances? Exceedingly low. Here’s a look at his prospects, with the benefit of my reporting on his two recent trips to New Hampshire.
Pataki has explored, considered, toyed with, flirted with, longed for … running for president multiple times, but he appears more serious and fully committed to running this time. He’s not yet legally a candidate, but that appears to be solely so that he can coordinate with a super PAC he created in January. (There are no limits on individual contributions to super PACs, unlike presidential campaign committees, so a small number of willing and wealthy backers can readily fund an early “exploration” via a super PAC. The drawback is that a super PAC can’t coordinate with a declared candidate.) He’s nonetheless running hard, having already made two multi-day trips to New Hampshire in 2015, with another planned for the week after next. He’s also scheduled to visit Iowa in early March.
Pataki’s odds are extremely long, but he does have a few positives. Here’s a look at what’s in his favor and what’s not.
- Pataki’s electoral experience: For all his stated disdain for politicians, he’s a pro. He’s run for office ten times, winning every race. (2 terms as mayor of Peekskill, 4 terms in the NYS Assembly, 1 term in the NYS Senate and 3 terms as governor.) Many of those races were tough – he beat incumbent Democrats to become mayor and a member of the Assembly and beat an incumbent Republican to become a state senator. He, of course, defeated Democratic incumbent Mario Cuomo to become governor.
- Crowded Field: With at least 15 Republicans appearing interested in running, it’s a wide-open and potentially tumultuous race. It’s far from a certainty but there’s a plausible possibility of front runners stumbling and voters casting about for additional candidates. Would they settle on Pataki as that out-of-nowhere candidate? With 15+ candidates, there’s lots of competition even for the dark horse spot but any upheaval is good for a back-of-the-pack candidate. Another consequence of a large field is that a candidate could place highly in a crowded primary with a fairly low percentage of votes, also good for a back-of-the-pack candidate.
- Early Action: Even though he’s not legally a candidate Pataki is spending significant time in early primary/caucus states. He’s been on a pair of two-day New Hampshire trips in 2015, with a third scheduled for the week after next. With more time than money, the New Hampshire paradigm of expecting candidates to make many face to face small group visits is well-suited to Pataki. In my observation, having been there for both of his 2015 New Hampshire visits, these small groups are a decent setting for him. Personable in a non-telegenic way, he seems to connect reasonably well with New Hampshirites, sharing tales of his childhood family farm and his current farm in the Adirondacks, as well as discussing his two sons’ military service, to establish some common ground.
- Low Expectations: At one New Hampshire stop Pataki laughed and replied “you’re moving me up” to an audience member who began a question by describing him as a “second tier candidate.” Simply making it into mid-single digits in any poll would be a meaningful advance for the mostly-ignored Pataki. If he continues regular New Hampshire visits, such a result is possible on name recognition alone.
- Crowded Field: With so many Republican candidates there’s little unfilled space on the ideological/position continuum. Pataki generally runs right, with harsh criticism of President Obama, but that offers zero distinction from the rest of the field. Primary voters can readily find more bombastic and radical candidates and so far Pataki has not set himself apart from the rest of the field. (Here’s a snapshot of positions Pataki expressed during his most recent New Hampshire visit – we’ll look at his positions more closely in a later email.)
- Low Profile: Pataki has been out of office for 8 years and it’s been more than 12 years since his last full-fledged campaign. Despite being a 3-term governor of a large blue state, he’s little known. A recent Bloomberg Politics/Saint Anselm’s College New Hampshire poll listed 15 prospective Republican candidates for respondents to rate – Pataki was not included. A recent Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Politics Iowa poll also ignored Pataki. It’s a political axiom, or at least my political axiom, that people can’t vote for you unless they know you exist. Pataki has a long way to go on this fundamental step.
- Lack of Home State Support: The New York State Republican party remains a mess 8 years after Pataki’s departure as de facto head. New York Republicans face many large challenges, including party registration and demographic trends that transcend Pataki, but he’s still regarded as having left the state party adrift. (The last Republican victory in a statewide race by someone other than Pataki was Dennis Vacco’s 1994 attorney general win.) While Pataki has some New York friends and supporters, he does not have a strong hold on New York Republican hearts or wallets. As a result he has far less of a home-state base than many of his expected opponents.
- Money: Pataki appears to have little so far. He created a super Pac in January and it’s first FEC financial reports aren’t due until April, so we have little information on his fundraising to date. (As I described above, the advantage of a super Pac is that it can raise unlimited contributions.) Even assuming that he’s able to raise enough to fund an early-stage campaign, however, with Jeb Bush and other nationally known candidates in the race Pataki will never have a competitive advantage in money.
So why is he in the race? There are a few possibilities. First, he may really believe that he can win and, if so, he has to act now. He’s 69, and at 71 on inauguration day in January, 2017, Pataki would be the oldest president in our history. While American views on older workers have expanded substantially, we’re on our third consecutive young president. It’s hard to know if American voters are ready to choose someone so much older than they have for the past 24 years, but it’s clear that despite his apparent vigor and energy Pataki can’t wait for the next election.
His sights may be set slightly lower, hoping for a vice presidential nod or selection as a senior member of a new Republican administration after a good campaign performance. If you squint hard enough, you can start to see plausible scenarios where he could be a vice presidential possibility, say for a relatively young firebrand like Ted Cruz. You can’t quite get that scenario in focus, however, as one old fact returns to view. Pataki has long described himself as pro-choice and it’s difficult to imagine that the Republican party will select a 2016 presidential or vice presidential candidate who supports the right to abortion. The post-Romney Republican party seems like a harsh environment for a candidate with a past resembling Romney’s pro-choice days as a northeastern blue state governor.
With nearly a year to go until the New Hampshire primary, it’s early for predictions but it’s clear that Pataki is committed to a 2016 run. It’s also clear, however, that his odds are long and his prospects poor. Against those expectations any upward movement, even simply into the mid-single digits in poll results, would be a Pataki victory. Stay tuned as we keep an eye on the first New Yorker in the 2016 race.