Cynthia Nixon, an award-winning actress one Oscar shy of the full EGOT, is apparently not famous by Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s standards. Speaking to reporters on March 7 – a little over a week before Nixon announced that she would challenge Cuomo in the Democratic primary – the governor told reporters that name recognition was not enough to launch a successful campaign. And, he implied, she’s not exactly an A-list star. “If it was just about name recognition, then I'm hoping that Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie and Billy Joel don't get into the race,” Cuomo joked.
The governor may have been justified in knocking her name recognition – Nixon could be less well-known than is assumed among the New York City politics and media elite. Conventional wisdom holds that Nixon, the former “Sex and the City” star who is close to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, has an advantage because of her celebrity status. Unlike many first-time candidates, Nixon is widely known from television and as an activist who campaigned for marriage equality and other liberal causes. (Her Grammy was for best spoken word album for her reading of “An Inconvenient Truth.”) She also has been an outspoken critic of Cuomo’s education policies.
However, in a Siena College Poll published the morning that Nixon announced her candidacy, only 20 percent of voters said that they had a favorable opinion of her, while 19 percent said they had an unfavorable opinion. Sixty percent of New York voters said they did not know who she was or had no opinion. Among Democrats, her numbers were only slightly better – 26 percent of voters viewed her favorably, 16 percent unfavorably and 59 percent did not know or had no opinion. By comparison, 67 percent of Democrats have a favorable opinion of Andrew Cuomo, 25 percent have an unfavorable opinion, and only 8 percent do not know or have no opinion about him.
Steve Greenberg, a pollster for Siena College, said that it is not possible to know how many people within that 59 percent did not know at all about Nixon before being asked, or knew her name but had no opinion about her.
Nixon’s campaign strategy so far seems to be focused on attracting voters in New York City, as well as minority voters. In the city, 57 percent of voters did not know or had no opinion about her. Fifty-five percent of black voters and 72 percent of Hispanic voters across the state did not know or had no opinion on Nixon. Upstate, where insurgent primary challenger Zephyr Teachout was able to carve out much of her support against Cuomo in 2014, 70 percent of voters did not know or had no opinion about Nixon.
Nixon is nonetheless at an advantage when it comes to name recognition compared to other non-incumbent candidates, both historically and in this election. In a Siena poll from July 2014, 86 percent of voters – and 91 percent of Democrats – did not know about Teachout or had no opinion. Even other officeholders fare worse than Nixon. Among the Republican gubernatorial candidates, 76 percent of voters do not know about or have no opinion on state Sen. John DeFrancisco, and 77 percent of voters do not know about or have no opinion on Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro.
The poll was also conducted before Nixon had officially entered the race, and she has already demonstrated her ability to get press attention in the first few days of her campaign. Primary voters are also usually more well-informed and more left-leaning than average Democratic voters.
Greenberg also noted that name recognition matters less in a campaign than popularity. It’s often said that Cuomo has a problem with progressives, despite his accomplishments on issues such as paid family leave, gun control and raising the minimum wage. Many liberal organizations are wary of Cuomo, whom they believe is too friendly with the Republican majority in the state Senate, and who has stumbled on ethics reform.
But the Siena poll shows that Cuomo is popular with liberals: 69 percent of liberals have a favorable opinion of Cuomo and 24 percent have an unfavorable opinion. In a hypothetical primary matchup, 66 percent of Democratic voters said that they would vote for Cuomo, while 19 percent would vote for Nixon.
“Getting name recognition is the easiest part of the campaign,” Greenberg said. “But beyond that, she's got to get Democrats who like and are inclined to re-elect Andrew Cuomo a reason to change their mind.”
The primary is six months away, so Nixon has time to make her argument and build her base of support. Her candidacy is already being met with grassroots enthusiasm. On Thursday, the Nixon campaign published a press release saying that she received 2,214 contributions of less than $200 in her first day of campaigning. Cuomo – who is sitting on a $30 million campaign war chest, primarily from large donors – has received 1,369 small dollar donations since the start of 2011.