A Primary That Matters

For the first time since 1988, the New York primaries will play a crucial role in a presidential election

Passionate New Yorkers clashed at an April 14 rally in Manhattan when a Trump supporter punched a Trump protestor. (Video/Santiago Melli-Huber)

In most election years, a clear winner stands out in both parties well before April, making New York primary results negligible. Not this year. No candidate from either major political party has yet secured enough delegates to become either the Republican or Democratic nominee for president. All five remaining candidates—three Republicans and two Democrats—are in New York campaigning furiously, each with his or her own goals and markers for success.

For the Democrats, 247 New York state delegates are at stake on April 19. They will be apportioned proportionally to all candidates who won at least 15 percent of the popular vote. The candidates, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, of course both have strong ties to the Empire State: Clinton represented New York in the Senate from 2001-2009 and lives in Chappaqua, and Sanders was born and raised in Brooklyn.

Not counting superdelegates, Clinton has amassed 1,289 pledged delegates to Sanders’s 1,038. Factoring in superdelegates, Clinton has an additional 469 votes—625 short of what she needs to reach 2,383, a simple majority, which would secure her spot as the party’s presidential candidate, a goal that eluded her eight years ago. Superdelegates are party officials who are technically free to cast a vote at the convention for whomever they choose, but in fact are likely to vote for the candidate for whom they initially declared support. Examples of superdelegates include Congresswoman Karen Bass (D-CA), who pledged her support for Clinton, and Wayne Holland, former chairman of the Utah Democratic party, who supports Sanders.

Only 31 superdelegates have pledged their support for Sanders, giving him a total of 1,069 delegates. He has a tougher road ahead, as he still needs 1,314 delegates to clinch the nomination. Sanders won seven of the last eight contests, six of which were caucuses, and he has momentum going into New York. But Clinton leads by 17 points here, according to a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News/Marist poll. This is an increase of three points from a poll released Monday by the same pollster.

A win in New York would all but secure the nomination for Clinton, but her loss could also swing the Democratic primary in Sanders’s favor. A loss would be “a missed opportunity for Bernie,” said Robert Shapiro, a Columbia University political science professor specializing in American politics and public opinion. But Clinton, too, faces high stakes. A loss would be huge, he said, and even a close call could damage her.

“Given the expectations that she should win, it will hurt her if the election turns out to be very close,” Shapiro said, “since that will indicate the weakening of her support nationally, which has appeared in the national polls.” Clinton won the primaries in her other home states in March—Illinois, where she was born, and Arkansas, where she served as First Lady from 1983-1992.

A win for either candidate would mean momentum going into the next contest on April 26, when 384 delegates will be up for grabs in five northeastern and mid-Atlantic states—Delaware, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Maryland, and Pennsylvania.

On the Republican side, Cruz needs to win 87 percent of the remaining delegates—including New York’s 95 Republican delegates—if he hopes to secure the nomination before the GOP convention in Cleveland in July. This is statistically unlikely, but he and John Kasich hope to siphon off enough delegates in the coming weeks and months to keep Trump from winning a majority of the delegates before the first round of voting. If they are successful, the convention will be considered “contested.” And if that happens, more and more delegates with each round of voting will be free to vote for a candidate other than who they are pledged to vote for in the first ballot. Cruz and Kasich are each preparing for a fight on the convention floor, where they will hope to convince enough delegates to vote for them.

In New York, however, it is unlikely Cruz will find too much support. Among other things, the Texas senator infamously criticized Trump for having “New York values,” a jab that did nothing to curry favor with the Empire State. Trump, a Queens native, is polling at 49 percent compared to Cruz’s 14 percent, according to an April 14 Optimus poll. The same poll puts Kasich in second place with 23 percent.

New York is a “winner take most” state in the Republican primary—a certain number of delegates are awarded to the overall winner of the contest, with additional delegates awarded to the winner of the popular vote in each district. Thus Kasich or Cruz could theoretically pick up delegates from districts with less Trump support.

Voter turnout can also play a big role in both parties, and there are reasons to expect a high turnout. Passion among New Yorkers manifested as a fist fight at an anti-Trump rally on April 14.

“We would expect higher turnout because of the perceived closeness of the New York primary on the Democratic side and given the enthusiasm that Sanders has generated,” said Shapiro. “Sanders supporters may know also that he needs to maximize his votes to maximize his delegates in the proportional allocation.”

On the GOP side, “Trump has generated a lot of enthusiasm among Republicans,” he added. “Even though Trump is ahead in the New York pre-election polls, he needs a high turnout to maximize his number of delegates—to win all the congressional districts and the state—for the fight that is likely to occur at the Republican national Convention.”

In other words, the higher the voter turnout, the better it will be for Sanders to narrow the gap and for Trump to widen his lead.

Yet political scientists are divided on this point. Donald Green, also a political science professor at Columbia, agrees that turnout will be unusually high for the state but does not think Trump is counting on it, saying, “because polls put Clinton and Trump well ahead, the campaigns are not devoting extraordinary resources to mobilize voters.”

Green called Clinton’s delegate lead “nearly insurmountable” and said Trump needs to win New York in order to pick up the momentum necessary to win the majority of the remaining delegates. As such, he says, both frontrunners’ campaigns would be happy with a low turnout that will reflect current polls.

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