In the last four days, I attended three rallies for Kathy Hochul and two parties for literary magazines in Brooklyn. The Hochul rallies, which I covered in my capacity as a journalist, featured Kamala Harris, Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton, and Joe Biden. In almost every case—the outdoor Biden rally, at Sarah Lawrence College, appeared to be the exception—the magazine parties drew more people. The Drift, the new darlings of the New York literary scene, once again jammed a venue to the brink of its capacity, throwing hundreds of twenty and thirty-somethings into a Boerum Hill café and bar. Two nights later, Forever Magazine of Los Angeles and New York held their new issue launch at a chic event space on the Gowanus Canal, matching, at least, the Drift’s turnout. Forever didn’t attract any current and former U.S. presidents, but it did have Anna Delvey on Zoom, fielding questions from the audience as she serves out her house arrest. The political set didn’t seem quite as excited or intrigued by the Clintons as the Forever crowd was by Delvey, who has genuine infamy on her side.
Normally, I would be unequivocally gratified that more people care about two-year-old literary magazines than gubernatorial candidates and their attendant guests, faded presidents and Democratic icons among them. Politics has become a ceaseless obsession for too many people, their weltanschauungs organized entirely around the fates of the two parties in a way that simply wasn’t the case a decade ago. Every two years, an election cycle is framed as existential, and eventually ordinary Americans are going to move on, turning away to other pursuits that give them pleasure. Politics can be anti-intellectual to me—the same rote speeches, phrases, and pleas for attention, nuance flattened against red v. blue. It matters, yes, but so do good books, music, and cinema.
Still, is Kathy Hochul really losing to the lit mags—and Lee Zeldin? Until the Sunday rally at Sarah Lawrence with Biden, which must have hooked at least a thousand people, the campaign rallies had a listless, piped-in feel, the crowds seemingly reading from cue cards. At Barnard College, the promise of Kamala Harris and Hillary Clinton couldn’t quite fill the small auditorium. (A lead organizer of the Columbia University Democrats said the event hit its capacity and “thousands” couldn’t get tickets.) On Saturday, at a quasi-industrial studio space among the gleaming MetroTech Towers, Bill Clinton meandered on about Hochul, the Republicans, and the state of the nation to a penned-in audience of union members, most of them there at the behest of their bosses. It was difficult to tell if a single person wandered in off the street to organically watch Hochul or the 42nd president of the United States.
All the momentum and zeal is with Zeldin. All the anger is with him too. Hochul, an unremarkable center-left Democrat who was once a more conservative member of Congress—in the last decade, the NRA gave her an A-rating—has been recast as “crime wave Kathy,” the arch-villain of every right-wing fantasy. She’s a radical leftist, ultra-woke, the governor that’s going to put your kids into Covid quarantine camps. Every single shooting, stabbing, robbery, and murder in New York City is now her fault. So is the partial end of cash bail, though the reform was passed before she was governor and she herself forced the addition of bail eligible offenses this year. In a perverse way, you have to credit Zeldin and the Republicans for blaming a governor who took office fourteen months ago for all quality-of-life maladies afflicting the state, as if once Zeldin, a Donald Trump-supporting congressman, arrives at the governor’s mansion, crime will suddenly vanish because he decrees it so.
But that is where we are, and Zeldin is poised to perform better than any New York Republican in decades. His lawn signs are everywhere and Hochul’s are nowhere. The first presidential campaign I ever covered was 2016, and there are unsettling parallels between this race and Trump v. Clinton, how one base was clearly more enthused than the other, how airy and detached Democrats sometimes seemed from all of it. To the credit of the Democratic establishment today, they are far more alarmed than the Clinton camp ever was in 2016. Hochul is not taking valedictory tours or sharing bizarre, self-aggrandizing posts on social media. The governor is now doing what she should have done weeks ago: spend almost every waking hour in New York City to juice turnout there. If enough Democrats vote in the five boroughs, she can survive a bloodbath in the suburbs and upstate. Hochul is rushing through Sunnyside, the Upper West Side, Brownsville, Park Slope, and the Bronx. The rose garden strategy is dead. The question is whether it is too late.
The math still favors Hochul. Democrats have a dramatic enrollment advantage. No poll has ever showed Zeldin at 50 percent. Trump was bailed out by the electoral college in 2016—too few pundits, stupidly, imagined he could lose the popular vote and win the electoral college anyway—and Zeldin will have no such fallback. He must find a way to 50 percent, not 46 or 48. The tightening polls in recent week may, in the end, be a boon to Hochul, as Democrats were properly scared enough by a potential Zeldin victory to come out and vote. She should win, and probably will. Her victory may be reminiscent of Phil Murphy’s in New Jersey a year ago: a red wave almost did him in, but the partisan lean of the state was too much to overcome. Hochul simply has numbers on her side.
Zeldin has whatever the intangibles are worth. Perhaps it’s because I live in southern Brooklyn, an area bound to be swamped by Republican votes on Tuesday, or the Zeldin supporters are simply much louder, but you feel the possibility of his victory in a more visceral sense. The campaign signs are ubiquitous. One man even jogged with one through the New York City marathon—at least the Bay Ridge portion where I watched. I am surrounded, it seems, by card-carrying Republicans who never miss an election or life-long Democrats too spooked by crime to vote for Hochul, who they now blame for all of it. Crime is real, and fear of it is even greater. It overwhelms everything else. I walked past a house with a “Roevember” sign pasted to the door, a blue wave hopefully drawn on. It seemed like the relic of another age.
Zeldin has spoken far more directly to voters about the fear of crime. He is not terribly charismatic or compelling, but he is a disciplined politician who has steadily climbed the ranks of his party. He knows what he’s doing. He knows how to read the polls. Even inflation, of late, has taken a backseat with Zeldin. Today, he’s holding one of his final campaign events at the site of a subway stabbing in the Bronx. Press conferences are now predicated on crime, each macabre outcome the direct fault of the governor—not even the mayor or the NYPD, which could not prevent it. A cynical strategy is paying great dividends.
Left unclear in all of this is what Governor Zeldin would actually want to do with this state. What is the crime-fighting strategy? Add more police to the subway? Eric Adams, the ex-cop New York City mayor, and Hochul have already done that. Reinstitute cash bail entirely and lower the age of criminal responsibility? Good luck getting that through Democrats in the legislature. Yank Alvin Bragg, the Democratic district attorney of Manhattan, from power and hope for the best? Prosecutors can’t control crime and Bragg, if an honest examination of his record is made, will be shown to be largely mainstream, not terribly different than Melinda Katz in Queens or Eric Gonzalez in Brooklyn. But Zeldin won’t care.
Most dispiriting about all of this is the lack of discussion over the actual future of New York. Hochul has offered no clear, affirmative vision of the future. I do not know, in any serious detail, what she wants to do about housing, transportation, the environment, or public education in 2023. Zeldin, meanwhile, has never talked about how he’d fix the MTA’s looming funding crisis or control the costs of infrastructure projects. Beyond raising the cap on charter schools—another non-starter for Democrats—he has little to say about the public schools. What about the revival or reform of 421a? Building more housing in the suburbs to alleviate the affordability crisis? None of it has to do with the bail laws. If Zeldin somehow wins on Tuesday, defying history and polling and mathematics and all punditry everywhere, he will wake up to find that he has a state to run. This will be a lot harder than doing eight p.m. Fox hits or making Trump your forever friend.
Political Currents by Ross Barkan is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Hi Ross- I’m with the Dem party in Rockland. I can tell you we didn’t send anyone to the Westchester rally yesterday because we’re all on the ground working-none of our candidates went; they were at events all around our county. We do not see a similar ground effort by the GOP. These rallies just take away from our GOTV efforts. That’s why we don’t send people to them-
I don’t think we have to worry about people being obsessed with elections when the 50% turnout in the last mid-term was considered huge. We need to be more obsessed with elections if we have any chance of saving democracy.
But I know that you’re a lot more sanguine than I am about the future of democracy.