December 30, 2015
Another one bites the dust. George Pataki, a candidate many never realized was in, is now out. You won’t read many campaign obituaries for a candidate who never cleared 1% in polls, nor raised any money to speak of.
This isn’t one either. Instead it’s a memorial to the office of Governor of New York, once an almost guaranteed ticket to top tier status in any presidential race. As Pataki has proven, no more.
Yes, he’s probably too old, at just past 70. Except Bernie Sanders is 74, Donald Trump 69, Hillary Clinton 68. He waited too long to run, having left office in 2006. So did Jeb Bush. The time away hasn’t helped Jeb’s political skills, but it didn’t impair his opportunity to show just how rusty he was.
Hillary is famous, so is Trump. Jeb is the son and brother of presidents. Even Bernie is a Larry David doppleganger, not to mention leader of a serious grass roots movement from the left.
Until the past generation, being Empire State chief was an even more guaranteed pass to being taken seriously. For a while it was a fast pass to the White House.
From Grover Cleveland’s inauguration in 1885 to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death in 1945, ex-New York governors spent 27 of 60 years at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
During the same era, the 1868, 1876, 1888, 1912, 1916, 1928, 1944 and 1948 elections were lost by current or former New York governors. You get the idea.
It didn’t require years of experience in the job either. Cleveland was elected Mayor of Buffalo in 1881, Governor of New York in 1882 and President of the United States in 1884.
He lost his bid for re-election in 1888 and ran successfully in 1892. To win the Democratic nomination, Cleveland needed to defeat David B. Hill, his successor as governor.
Hill was followed in Albany by Levi Morton, who attempted the 1896 Republican nomination, losing out to William McKinley.
Theodore Roosevelt was elected governor in 1898, was McKinley’s VP in 1900 and took over after his assassination in 1901. Roosevelt was such a large presence for the next decade that the streak of every governor seriously reaching for the presidency stopped.
In those days, New York was the most populous and by far the most influential state in the Union. With mid-late 19th century vice presidents having limited responsibility and prestige, Governor of New York was the number two executive position in the land.
That helped push New Yorkers forward, but another factor was being the ultimate swing state. People currently refer to places like Ohio and Florida as swing states because they go back and forth between the parties and usually pick the winner.
But both lean slightly Republican. Even though President Obama won each state in 2008 and 2012, he still ran behind his national margin. If the GOP candidate loses them in 2016, a Democrat will get elected president. Important states, competitive states, but not truly swing states.
The three elections from 1880 to 1888 were absurdly close. None had popular vote margins of even 1%. James Garfield won in 1880 by less than two thousand votes. New York voted for the winner by very narrow margins each time. It was the electoral vote difference too.
The largest state in the country was also the most competitive. It had the impact California does today, providing approximately 20% of the electoral votes needed to win, but did not naturally favor either party.
Democrats and Republicans each had a powerful political machine. Beyond keeping the state up for grabs, it favored New Yorkers when it was time to fight for a nomination at the convention. Primaries didn’t exist yet and the state held the most delegates, with the bosses keeping everyone in line.
Even when a governor wasn’t readily available, another New Yorker was often thrown into the breach. Newspaper publisher Horace Greeley gave it a try in 1872 and Judge Alton Parker took a loss in 1904.
Collector of the Port of New York Chester A. Arthur wound up on the 1880 GOP ticket, becoming president when Garfield was assassinated. In those days, a New York City street sweeper had more chance of winding up in a national campaign than a post-Civil War southern governor.
Once the 20th century was in full swing, the era of Any New Yorker Will Do ended. But Empire State governors grew in power and became larger national figures.
Beginning with the Progressive Era, state government grew dramatically. In the largest and richest state, one still adding residents, there was plenty of opportunity to make a mark.
Al Smith was the first of these, strongly contending for the 1924 Democratic nomination which ultimately went to a record 103 ballots before being awarded to John W. Davis.
In 1928, Smith became the first Catholic major party nominee. While Herbert Hoover defeated him soundly, his candidacy began the process of bringing urban voters back under the Democratic umbrella.
Four years later, FDR took advantage, built on what Smith (his predecessor in New York) started and defeated Hoover in a landslide.
Dealing with post-crash New York gave Roosevelt a trial run for the New Deal and he hit the ground running, moving decisively to deal with the continuing depression.
Agree or disagree with his methods, the governorship was correctly viewed as part of what prepared him. No longer as much of a swing state (New York leaned Republican until 1956, turned very blue in the 1990s), candidates made their case on their executive accomplishments.
With FDR firmly ensconced in the White House, his Democratic successor was blocked. However, in 1942, Republican Thomas E. Dewey was elected governor and continued on to become the GOP nominee for 1944 and 1948.
Dewey’s upset defeat at the hands of Harry Truman almost 70 years ago is the last time a current or former New York governor was a presidential nominee.
FDR’s final victory in 1944 was the last for a New Yorker. No governor was chosen as a running mate either (though Nelson Rockefeller was appointed in 1974 to finish the remainder of Gerald Ford’s VP term. He was then dropped from the ticket for 1976.)
What happened to the presidential empire?
First, New York began losing influence. After World War II, California became increasingly more important, catching and surpassing the Empire State in population and economic development.
From 1948 to 1984, only two elections failed to include a Californian on the Republican ticket.
In one of those vacant years, 1976, Golden State governors (Ronald Reagan and Jerry Brown) contested the nomination of each party, but fell short.
The center of gravity simply shifted. As New York replaced Ohio (last presidential nominee 1920), and Ohio supplanted Virginia (5 presidents, none since John Tyler in the 1840s), California replaced New York.
It’s easier to run as the governor of a growing state. If there’s momentum, your numbers look better, fewer tough budgetary decisions to make.
This principle now holds Californian candidates back as places like Texas have become the new presidential incubators.
Averell Harriman replaced Dewey in New York after the 1954 election. In 1956 he ran for president, but didn’t get very far.
Two years later he was defeated by Rockefeller, who burst on to the scene in Albany, reforming this and spending on that. At first things went pretty well, and only incumbent Vice President Nixon was able to keep him from the 1960 GOP nomination.
Then Rocky ran out of money as New York’s economic engine began to sputter. While he ran again in 1964 and 1968, he increasingly needed to deal with the state’s post-growth transition.
There are plenty of reasons he was destined to fall short of the prize, but beginning his tenure as a builder and ending it dealing with the Attica prison riot didn’t help.
His 1968 run was the last for an Empire State governor before Pataki. Hugh Carey was Rockefeller’s relatively popular Democratic two-term replacement who helped steer New York City through their mid-70s fiscal collapse. Never ran.
Mario Cuomo was the darling of the traditional Democratic left from his 1984 convention keynote address until he passed on running in 1992 (after declining in 1988). He served three terms before Pataki defeated him in 1994.
Carey and Cuomo could have run, but their paths were harder than their predecessors. In FDR’s day gubernatorial terms were two years and governors started thinking about being president while taking the oath in Albany.
By the 1970s, the job was a four-year grind. With more to deal with, less upside, and no easy road to the White House, winning governors were beginning to see the job as an end in itself.
When the relatively colorless Pataki replaced the voluble Cuomo, who spent plenty of time opining on national issues, it completed the transition from stepping stone to administrative job.
No longer even vaguely a swing state, New York is ultra blue. There is no strong statewide Republican organization. A GOP governor almost needs to function like an Independent.
Democratic candidates have a long list of local interest groups to satisfy in order to get nominated. Once in office, expectations to carry out a liberal agenda are high. Neither path sets a winning governor up for success at the next level.
New York City still matters. After all, Donald Trump, the current political center of gravity is a creation of the Big Apple. Hillary Clinton has Empire State ties, having served as their Senator.
She’s used Manhattan as an ATM for a couple decades now. Big Wall Street donors are willing to give to candidates from anywhere.
Former Mayor Rudy Giuliani was a presidential polling front runner for most of 2007 before fading. Most of his two terms overlapped Pataki, overshadowing the governor before and after 9/11.
Current second-term Governor Andrew Cuomo (son of Mario) gave little if any thought to challenging Clinton this year.
The only real splash made by a recent New York chief executive was Elliot Spitzer (Pataki’s successor) being forced from office by a prostitution scandal in 2008.
The office just isn’t what it used to be. George Pataki exits the campaign as the perfect symbol.