INTERACTIVE: What Is Lee Zeldin’s Path to Victory?

Sam Rabiyah and Rachel Holliday Smith, The City

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The campaign for Rep. Lee Zeldin says this year’s race for governor is a toss-up. Gov. Kathy Hochul’s camp says: No way, the incumbent has it in the bag.

Some recent polls place Zeldin within striking distance. To eke out a victory, the Long Island representative would have to have a lot of enthusiasm from traditional Republican supporters and low turnout from the Democratic base — as well as peel off a sizable number of voters who have voted with the Democrats in recent elections.

Here’s how that could work, according to THE CITY’s election simulator.

First up: Turnout. If everyone who voted in 2018 and 2020 voted with the same party as they did then — with each bar below at 100% — Hochul wins.

But if Democrats stay home in large enough numbers — for example, if 38% of Biden voters stay home — Zeldin has it. See for yourself below:

Columbia University political science professor Ester Fuchs thinks that level of stunted Democratic voter turnout is quite unlikely, with voters in that party “highly motivated to vote” this year, particularly in the wake of the overturn of Roe v. Wade.

Zeldin has one very tough path forward, she said, in a state where 49.8% of active, registered voters are Democrats. (Another 22.7% are unaffiliated, and 22.2% are Republican, the latest state Board of Elections data shows.)

“The only way a Republican can really win is by mobilizing the base, peeling off some Democrats and getting the entire group of independents who are out there,” she said.

Chapin Fay, former campaign manager for Zeldin’s first congressional campaign and now running a pro-Zeldin political action committee, says vying for office in New York State is “like running three separate campaigns at once” — in the suburbs of New York City, upstate and in the five boroughs. Zeldin “needs all three” — and he thinks Zeldin winning enough voters in The Bronx’s Hispanic communities, the city’s Asian American-majority districts and in heavily Jewish areas may push him over the top.

“I personally do not believe that there is enough margin in the suburbs and upstate — and it’s already very close — to make it over the top,” he said. “New York City is where just the sheer number of voters are.”

Below, THE CITY’s tool shows the race’s potential outcome based on who voters in 2018 and 2020 choose this time around, in a scenario where every single person who voted last time turned out to vote again.

Choose either the 2018 governor’s race or the 2020 presidential race to see what will happen as voters either stick with their same choice of party this time, or switch.

If 90% of voters who chose Marc Molinaro, the GOP nominee in 2018, choose Zeldin, he’ll need to peel off about a quarter, or 26%, of 2018 Andrew Cuomo voters. If 100% of 2020 Donald Trump voters choose Zeldin, he’ll need about 19% of Biden voters to switch sides for him to win over Hochul. (Zeldin is an ally of the former president, and got Trump’s endorsement on Sunday.)

Now, combine would-be turnout with hypothetical party-switching below.

Slide the bars below to see what happens when voters in 2018 and 2020 choose Hochul or Zeldin — and some don’t vote at all.

Zeldin could, for instance, win in this scenario: 80% of Trump voters from 2020 choose him, 15% choose Hochul and 5% don’t vote, then at the same time, Biden voters split 60% for Hochul, 20% for Zeldin and 20% stay home.

Try it out:

New York City’s voting power, in particular, could make a big difference in the governor’s race, said Steve Greenberg, a pollster with the Siena College Research Institute. That played out in 2014, when Cuomo came closest to losing, defeating Rob Astorino by 14 points. That same year, the five boroughs accounted for just 26% of the total votes cast, in a state where the city is home to 39% of registered voters.

“That’s been the closest gubernatorial election in the last four,” Greenberg said.

In the next race, the city got close; New York City voters in 2018 accounted for 34% of all votes cast. That year, Cuomo won by 24 points.

“When you see New York City’s share of the electorate go from about a quarter to a little more than a third, that’s going to impact who’s voting and therefore impact the outcome,” he said.

The state’s Democrats are attempting to stave off a turnout drop with a “Wake Up Dems” rally on the Upper West Side this weekend. Hochul will be there, joined by Attorney General Letitia James and more than a dozen city elected officials.

Katie Vincentz, spokesperson for the Zeldin campaign, told THE CITY “the polls are tightening” and “this is a very tight race.”

“Hochul is trying anything and everything to distract from her abysmal record on the issues most important to New Yorkers,” she said. “Unfortunately for her, New Yorkers are sick and tired of the attacks on their wallets, safety, kids’ education and more, and they know it’s going to take firing Hochul to save our state.”

The governor’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

Hochul’s overall position in the polls spells likely victory, and she has a name recognition advantage: in Siena’s latest poll, 36% of likely voters said they didn’t know Zeldin, or hardly did.

“The fact that six weeks out, more than a third of likely voters had either never heard of Zeldin — or didn’t know enough about him at that point to have an opinion — that’s hard,” Greenberg said.

Note: Simulations are based on turnout and voter behavior based on previous elections and does not indicate election results.
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