It’s March 2015 — Westchester has just voted in a special election to fill out the unexpired county executive term of Rob Astorino, who scored an upset victory for governor in November. So who won?
There’s no time in a special election to persuade swing voters or expand the electorate — turnout of prime voters is all that counts. If the candidates have similar name recognition, as Ken Jenkins and Jim Maisano do, they are basically irrelevant, since the outcome will follow a generic ballot pretty closely. And since Democrats in Westchester hold a 2-to-1 registration edge, the odds were in favor of Jenkins.
But let’s look at that Democrat advantage more closely. It’s true, among all registered voters in Westchester, there are a lot more Democrats than Republicans.*In even-year elections, that distribution generally holds, with both DEM and REP groups picking up vote share at the expense of less reliable NON voters.
But in odd years — local elections — Republicans are much more consistent voters, and the Democrats’ edge softens.
In special elections, only the most reliable voters show up. In 2015 only 122,000 votes were cast — a 33% drop from the same race in 2013, and more than 50% fewer votes than in the governor’s race just four months prior. And while Democrats still turned out in greater number, their advantage is not insurmountable.
This turnout would give the Democrat a 7.7-point win if NON votes split evenly. But NONs don’t split evenly, they skew Republican. In fact, in the past two county-wide elections, essentially all NON votes went to Astorino, turning the Democrats’ higher enrollment into nothing more than a minority.
But wasn’t Astorino an exception? (As evidenced by his win over Cuomo, Astorino is special.) Democrats still retained a majority in the Board of Legislators in 2009, 2011, and 2013; and the other two county-wide offices, County Clerk and District Attorney, both went to the Democrat in 2009 and 2013 despite losses for Andy Spano and Noam Bramson at the top of the ticket. County Clerk Tim Idoni’s victories in 2009 and 2013 were better indications of how a Democrat should perform in Westchester — in both years he picked up a 53% victory without much effort.
If Jenkins were able to pull just 29.9% of the NON votes — what Idoni did in 2013 — he’d win with 50.8% of the vote, a bare margin of 2,000 votes.
But that’s with a two-way race. Throw Mike Spano in there running as a spoiler on a discredited Independence line, and even if he pulls 1,000 votes from Jenkins, that could swing the election. Spano won 54% for mayor in 2011. (Idoni won only 50.1% in 2013, indicating just how close a generic ballot is in Yonkers.) With 19,000 votes coming out of Yonkers in this special, there’s a lot of room to make mischief for Jenkins.
And mischief for Maisano. After all, Spano was a Republican for many years, as every prime voter in Yonkers knows. Pulling from both sides in this special election, Spano dominated Yonkers, winning 50% of the vote; plus a handful of votes elsewhere, he ended up with almost 10% county-wide. And with more of those votes cutting into Jenkins’ margin, election night ended just as Spano had hoped — with a weak win by Maisano, setting Spano up for a real challenge in 2017.
Except: hold on. The Board of Elections tallies absentees, and Maisano has won by only 105 votes. Attention turns to broken voting machines in Mt. Vernon and some non-credentialed poll watchers in Yonkers. This one’s going to court, folks, and we won’t know who’ll fill Astorino’s shoes for some time …