The rise of Cuomo shows that times of tragedy can make very unlikely political heroes.
It’s not that Cuomo was previously regarded as a bad manager — it’s that he was an unpopular one.
Cuomo’s name was floated as a potential 2020 candidate before the race got underway. His name was asked across a bunch of state and national polls. The most frequent share Cuomo got in those polls was 0%, and he averaged just 0.4%.
The lack of enthusiasm for Cuomo nationally was reinforced by how lukewarm his support was in his home state. When matched up against other political figures from New York early in 2019, just 17% said Cuomo would make the best president in a Quinnipiac University poll. That wasn’t too far ahead of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (11%). It was well behind former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (28%).
Cuomo managed to upset a lot of people in New York. He perturbed the left (by his deals with state Senate Republicans), the right (by supporting a slew of liberal initiatives) and even clean government folks (see the Moreland Commission).
Perhaps not surprisingly, his favorable ratings in New York were near their all-time low earlier this year, after serving nine years in office. According to Siena College, Cuomo’s net favorability (favorable-unfavorable) rating was -6 points. It isn’t easy to have a net negative favorability rating as a statewide Democrat in the blue state of New York, but he managed to do it.
Cuomo’s 2018 reelection performance was not what I would categorize as strong. Yes, he won reelection by 23 points, but remember, this is New York state in a very good year for Democrats nationwide. His margin was the weakest for any Democrat running in New York statewide. It was more than 10 points weaker than the two other incumbents up for reelection.
The 2018 election also marked the second time in a row where he faced a primary challenge from the left. The progressive Working Families Party endorsed his rival Cynthia Nixon of “Sex and the City” fame. Cuomo won that primary by a little over 30 points, though pre-election polling indicated that he likely lost among self-identified very liberal Democrats.
Sometimes, though, the traits that make others perceive you as a bad leader in one context can make you be seen as a strong one in another context. One of the biggest negative adjectives normally prescribed to Cuomo is that he is “heavy-handed.” That’s exactly the leadership style that can work very well during a crisis.
In this way, Cuomo may remind some New Yorkers of former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Giuliani was on his way out as New York City mayor with little future in politics. After 9/11, Giuliani’s approval rating jumped 30 points. Like Cuomo, Giuliani was described as “heavy-handed” — and found that demeanor suited to a crisis.
Giuliani’s reaction to the 9/11 attacks made him a hero to many, as Cuomo’s actions regarding the coronavirus pandemic has made him one to many. Of course, Giuliani wasn’t ultimately able to transfer that popularity into winning higher office; His 2008 presidential bid floundered.
What happens eventually with Cuomo’s political future is anyone’s guess. For now, Cuomo is getting more plaudits than he has in a long time.