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Looking For Signs Of Cuomo’s Liberal Problem In New York’s Democratic Primary

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo will probably win the Democratic primary on Tuesday. I say “probably” because there hasn’t been a single poll taken for the primary. Yet Cuomo looks to be in good shape; his opponent, Zephyr Teachout, is relatively unknown (85 percent of Democrats had no opinion of her, according to a mid-August Quinnipiac survey), and Cuomo is relatively well-liked (78 percent of Democrats held a favorable opinion of him in that survey).

Cuomo is an oft-talked-about presidential candidate. Maybe he’ll run in 2016 or 2020. I have long thought Cuomo is too moderate to appeal to the Democratic base, and we could see evidence of that Tuesday: A relatively weak performance against a liberal challenger like Teachout would confirm a soft spot in Cuomo’s presidential case.

What would a “weak” performance be? Let’s look at the issue statistically. What share of the vote have other incumbent governors earned in recent primaries? I’ve collected the vote every elected incumbent (i.e. not appointed or rose to the office because of a vacancy) governor won in a primary (or convention in the case of Utah) since 2002.

enten-datalab-cuomo-tableCuomo certainly won’t match the 32 governors who won 100 percent of the vote. And given his favorable rating in the Quinnipiac survey, he also looks as if he’ll fall well below the median governor’s renomination percentage of 90.3 percent.

If only the Democrats who have a favorable view of Cuomo vote for him — that would put him at 78 percent — he will have done better than 28 percent of other incumbents. That’s not terrible, but it’s not exactly strong either. Anything below that and Cuomo would rank in the bottom quartile.

Cuomo looks like he’ll do far worse than one might expect of a governor whose favorable rating among all voters is a relatively high 55 percent, according to the Quinnipiac poll. Winning only 70 percent of the vote would mean that voters in his party don’t like Cuomo much more than voters in general do. That’s unusual.

If that happens, it’ll be difficult not to conclude that a healthy portion of Democrats don’t like Cuomo because he is too moderate. Teachout is running on liberal anger; only 30 percent of Democrats in New York state think that Cuomo is liberal, according to a Marist survey in July. That’s far below the 49 percent of New York Democrats who saw Hillary Clinton as liberal before her 2006 Senate campaign.

So, if Cuomo doesn’t get out of the low 70s Tuesday, it’ll be a bearish sign for his prospects with Democratic voters in crucial presidential primary states such as Iowa and New Hampshire. If — even with the power of incumbency and a marquee name in the state — Cuomo has a tough time persuading the vast majority of Democrats to back him, then he’ll probably have a tougher time wooing voters in states where he doesn’t have those advantages.

CORRECTION (6:19 p.m. Sept. 8): A previous version of the table listed Frank Murkowski as from Arkansas. He is from Alaska. It also identified Brad Henry as a Republican. He is a Democrat.

Harry Enten was a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.