In the last few days, anyone paying attention to officials from his own party and media observers would have figured that Governor Andrew Cuomo’s political career would be finished pretty soon, concluding with a coerced resignation or a threatened impeachment. The crisis associated with a steadily growing number of reports of sexual harassment and misconduct by Cuomo (occurring on the heels of questions about his one-lauded handling of the COVID-19 pandemic) has quickly escalated from scattered reports to a scandal to an urgent matter of sanctions, made more inescapable by the man’s refusal to admit wrongdoing and his famously combative and abrasive personality.
But initial public opinion research on the reaction of New Yorkers to the firestorm threatening to consume Cuomo shows stronger support for (or perhaps tolerance of) his conduct than is evident among elites. A new Siena College poll of registered voters taken on March 8-12 shows “voters by a margin of 50% to 35% believe Cuomo should not resign immediately. A similar margin, 48% to 34%, believe the governor can effectively continue his job as governor.” Among the rank-and-file Democrats who are the constituents of so many elected officials (including most of Democrats in the state’s congressional delegation) calling for Cuomo’s resignation, resistance to the idea of kicking him to the curb is particularly high: 61 percent of self-identified Democrats and 69 percent of Black voters oppose his resignation.
So is Cuomo’s apparent intention to tough it out and stay in office well-founded? Not necessarily. The same poll that shows half of voters opposing a Cuomo resignation show his job approval rating dropping to 43 percent from 56 percent a month ago. And only 34 percent of respondents are inclined to support Cuomo in a potential bid for a fourth term in 2022. There is also a good probability that support for the governor will erode once the details of the allegations against him are better known (or if more emerge). The Siena poll shows 35 percent of New Yorkers believe Cuomo is guilty of sexual harassment (25 percent do not, with the rest unsure), and that 57 percent are currently satisfied with how he’s addressed the allegations. It’s entirely possible that when the public at large becomes as thoroughly familiar with the details of the allegations as are the pols who are responsible for dealing with them, Cuomo’s public support, particularly among Democrats, may curdle.
There is some historical evidence for the idea of a lag time before scandals fully persuade the electorate of their truth and salience. As FiveThirtyEight observed in a look back at the Watergate scandal. support for Richard Nixon’s impeachment or resignation was very late to develop, despite the many months and years the growing evidence of his misconduct had been in the news. But in the end, of course, Nixon’s presidency did not survive Watergate. Nor have most other pols engulfed by scandal, even before the #MeToo movement began chipping away at the double standards benefiting political men.
In New York’s most recent analogue, public opinion immediately and decisively turned against Governor Eliot Spitzer in 2008 when credible reports emerged that he had frequented a prostitution service. A Marist poll taken the very next day showed 70 percent of New Yorkers favored his resignation, which occurred within two days of the initial reports. It certainly didn’t help that the misconduct involved cut directly against a reputation for personal and professional probity that Spitzer had carefully cultivated in his rise to the governorship. Perhaps, ironically, Cuomo is at least partially benefiting from his very long and unhidden history of abusive (though not sexually abusive) behavior towards anyone who crosses him.
Another recent fall from grace for a New York Democratic pol involved Anthony Weiner, who abruptly resigned from Congress in 2011 after a lurid sexting scandal, only to stage what initially looked like a miraculous comeback when he briefly led the New York City mayoral field in 2013. Weiner’s political career collapsed for good when it was revealed he had continued online sexual misconduct on multiple occasions after his resignation from Congress. Yes, Weiner got (and wasted) a second chance from voters, but his misconduct was more remote from his official duties than the alleged misconduct by Cuomo, and he only got that second chance after resigning his office.
How about governors in other states accused of personal misconduct? Nobody “gutted it out” more thoroughly than South Carolina’s Mark Sanford, who faced a major impeachment threat after the 2009 disclosure of his much-ridiculed “Appalachian Trial hike” that was cover for a trip to Argentina for an extended tryst with the “soul mate” to whom he was not married. After a tearful confession, Sanford refused to resign, and although he did not face the kind of condemnation Spitzer immediately experienced, polls quickly showed about half of South Carolinians wanted him to leave. Sanford made it to the end of his term (he was term limited), avoiding impeachment in part because the lieutenant governor who would have inherited the office had a lot of intra-party enemies. Sanford, in a development that will always stand as inspiration to politicians caught up in a scandal, made a relatively quick comeback, winning his old U.S. House seat in a 2013 special election, before succumbing to a primary rival in 2018 who exploited GOP anger over his criticism of Donald Trump.
Another Republican governor, Alabama’s Robert Bentley, also defied demands for his resignation after evidence emerged indicating an extramarital affair with a staff member, even though polls immediately showed his approval ratings dropping into the teens. Impeachment threats didn’t bring down the “Love Guv,” but he was eventually forced to resign over a year after the scandal broke as part of a plea deal when he was charged with using campaign funds to cover up the affair.
A slightly more analogous situation to Cuomo’s occurred in Missouri in early 2018, when Republican Governor Eric Greitens confessed to an affair with his hairdresser, but was eventually charged with invasion of privacy after threatening his paramour with an embarrassing photograph. His polling numbers prior to a coerced June 2018 resignation were closer to Cuomo’s than were some of the scandalous figures mentioned above: a March survey showed 46 percent of Missouri votes favored his resignation. Other factors in his case, though, sharply distinguished Greitens from Cuomo: Greitens was a freshman governor and self-proclaimed “outsider” who inspired annoyance and resentment, not fear, among the Republican legislators who basically ran him out of office. There is virtually a statewide Republican political movement at present to keep Greitens from mounting a Senate comeback in 2022.
The precedent that might give Cuomo most hope involved Virginia Governor Ralph Northam. who was all but left for dead by political observers when one of two racist photos in a medical school yearbook were attributed to him in early 2019. Northam apologized for the photos (though he later recanted, claiming neither image was his), and the list of prominent Virginia and national Democrats calling for his resignation included both U.S. senators, the state Democratic Party. and several Democratic presidential candidates. Unlike most of the sex scandal perpetrators we have been discussing, Northam did not suffer a collapse in public support: a few weeks into the scandal, a Quinnipiac poll showed a plurality of voters – 48 percent to 42 percent – opposing his resignation. Given the nature of the allegations against him, it was significant that 56 percent of Black voters wanted him to stay in office.
One major reason Northam ultimately wasn’t forced by Democrats to resign is that both of the pols next in line for the position had their own problems: Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax was confronted with two allegations of sexual assault, and Attorney General Mark Herring had his own scandal involving a “blackface” yearbook photo. Unlike Cuomo, Northam was limited to one term as governor. And in the end all the Democratic Party’s leadership issues didn’t keep them from outstanding performance in the 2018 and 2019 elections in Virginia.
So yes, there is theoretically some precedent for Cuomo to believe if he simply refuses to bend to political pressure he will survive if not thrive. But it is precisely his reputation as a man who might become immensely more dangerous if politically wounded if not taken out of circulation altogether that separates him from those who hung on until they could not run for another term, or quit when the prosecutors showed up. The pols who started going on record demanding the governor’s resignation have put themselves on an enemies list that feckless characters like Sanford or Bentley or Greitens could not have put together, and unlike Northam, a surviving Cuomo would be in a position to pursue them (and perhaps his accusers themselves) to the ends of the earth.