The results of the New Roosevelt Initiative’s August Viability survey in Senate District 33 Democratic primary demonstrate that Senator Pedro Espada has clearly been damaged by the myriad scandals that surround him and he enters his re-election campaign in an extremely vulnerable position. As will be expanded upon in greater detail below, the three typical indicators for incumbent vulnerability – favorable v. unfavorable, job approval v. disapproval and re-elect v. replace – are all net negatives for Senator Espada.
Ironically, Espada is in this situation despite the fact that he has the highest overall name recognition of any elected official tested, even surpassing Attorney General Andrew Cuomo. 78% of the electorate knew and had an opinion of Espada, but more than half held an unfavorable rating of him and the vast majority of those held a strongly unfavorable rating. Two things to draw from this: First, when people know who Espada is, they usually have an unfavorable view of him, and second, unfortunately for Senator Espada, most people know who he is.
The survey was conducted from August 3rd through August 5th, 2010. Using bilingual (English/Spanish) callers, 400 Democrats registered to vote in the 33rd Senatorial District (and likely to vote in the September Democratic Primary) were randomly sampled. Respondents were further narrowed following a screener in the questionnaire on vote likelihood. The poll sample was matched to the 2008 statistics on turnout based on gender, age, Assembly District, and race, in order to ensure that the results reflect the likely composition of the 2010 primary electorate. The margin of error of this poll is plus or minus 4.8% at the 95% confidence level, while margins of error are greater for subgroups from the sample.
SENATOR ESPADA’S DAMAGED SUPPORT LEVELS
As stated above, Senator Espada should be concerned about the negative ratings he receives from voters on the three most important assessments of an elected official, with a negative favorability rating, a sizable job disapproval rating, and a strong replace over re-elect sentiment.
Despite his high name recognition, Senator Espada was given a strongly favorable rating by only 18% of respondents (with an additional 20% holding a somewhat favorable view), while 30% held a strongly UNfavorable view (with an additional 11% somewhat unfavorable). The difference between the strongly-held favorable sentiments indicates an intensity of anger at the incumbent that is not matched by his supporters. In contrast, Attorney General Andrew Cuomo has a 66% favorable rating and a 7% unfavorable rating. Cuomo’s popularity is likely to help validate the charges that he brought against the Senator in two civil actions earlier in the year, further contributing to the Senator’s poor performance in this survey.
Notable breakdowns of Senator Espada’s favorable-unfavorable ratings indicate that:
- Less than half of Latinos (48%) have a favorable view of the Senator, while almost a third (31%) of Latinos have an unfavorable view of Espada.
- Barely a quarter (27%) of black and white voters hold a favorable view of the Senator (with only 9% strongly favorable), and a solid 50% holding unfavorable views
- Espada’s faces negative sentiments all across the district, as his unfavorable ratings are merely equal to his favorable ratings in the southern part of the district, while in the northern part of the district he is faced with 60% of voters with an unfavorable opinion of him (compared to a only 22% with a favorable opinion)
JOB APPROVAL RATINGS
Regardless of voters’ personal sentiments about Pedro Espada, their assessment of how successful he is at his job as State Senator is even worse. Only 34% approve of the job Senator Espada has done, while 42% disapprove (and 32% strongly disapprove). The same regional and ethnic divides mentioned above apply to this measure as well, and a remarkable 33% of Latinas and 28% of Latino men disapprove of his job performance.
RE-ELECT/ REPLACE RATINGS
Generally considered the most accurate measure of an incumbent’s prospect for re-election, Senator Espada’s most sobering statistic is the level of voters expressing a desire to replace him rather than re-elect him. A mere 26% say he should be re-elected, while a solid 47% want to see him replaced. Across every age group, gender, level of voting history, geographic region, and even race, there is a larger sentiment for replacing Espada over re-electing him, including 39% of Latinos who want to replace him vs. only 35% of Latinos who would re-elect him.
HYPOTHETICAL MATCHUP: GUSTAVO RIVERA VS. ESPADA
Senator Espada’s main challenger is Gustavo Rivera, a college professor and progressive activist with deep campaign and governmental experience. Rivera is unknown to a majority of voters in the district, but still has a respectable favorable to unfavorable ratio (22% to 7%).
Despite his relatively low name recognition, however, Rivera is still tied with Espada in a head to head matchup, with each polling at 32%. What is remarkable about this result is that Rivera’s 32% is 3% higher than his substantive name recognition while Espada’s 32% is a full 47% lower than his substantive name recognition.
When the third candidate is added into the hypothetical matchup, Espada remains statistically the same, while the anti-Espada vote is split with the lion’s share going to Gustavo Rivera. In this scenario the third candidate, Daniel Padernacht, ends up having a “Ralph Nader” effect by pulling off a small percentage of the voters who desire change but are unclear on what change they want.
Nevertheless, it is clear from these two tests that Espada’s vote totals are capped in the low 30’s, while the remainder of the voters are undecided on whom (besides Espada) they should vote for. Further, it is stunning that Espada is held to a tie in a two-way race with a candidate whose campaign started late, has been up to this point relatively underfunded and who has not done a single mailing, television, radio or print ad (according to campaign finance reports). This is in contrast to Senator Espada, who has been trying (unsuccessfully) to take full advantage of his large government staff, extended taxpayer-funded mailings, print ads and resources from Soundview Health Care Network to try to boost the public’s low opinion of him.
ESPADA HAS NO ROOM TO GROW
The fundamental problem that Senator Espada faces for re-election is the huge disparity between his high name recognition and his low re-elect numbers. The fact is that the voters of this district know Pedro Espada very well, and they simply do not want him representing them anymore. This gives him relatively few voters to talk to who are open to being persuaded to vote for him. We see the impact of this in the head to head matchups where he tops out in the low 30’s.
For Espada to be even marginally viable in a two way race in this scenario he would have to convince virtually every voter who doesn’t already know and dislike him to vote for him, which is statistically and politically impossible. The three-way scenario improves Espada’s chances significantly, as a marginal candidate pulling even 5-10 % of the vote could create an environment in which Espada could win, although he would still need to convince a large majority of the undecided voters to support him. Nevertheless, Espada will have the resources to try to get his message out there very loudly, so this scenario cannot be discounted.
Furthermore, Espada’s central argument for re-election, which relies heavily on mentioning his status as the highest-ranking Latino in the State and his “hero” status in the community, falls completely flat. After hearing a longer version of this message, Espada’s support remained around the same place as above, at 31% (and at only 35% among Latino voters). Without even mentioning specific challengers, a solid 46% of voters preferred another candidate after this messaging, with 23% still undecided.
THE CHALLENGE FOR GUSTAVO RIVERA
Clearly, voters in the Democratic Primary are ready for a change, they don’t approve of Senator Espada and he seems to have hit his ceiling of support. This is all good news for the person who is seen here in this poll and in the general public as the most viable replacement for Espada, Gustavo Rivera. In addition, the primary race has yet to fully engage, with the media not yet focusing on the challenger and the paid messaging yet to begin.
In this environment, the path to victory for Rivera and his supporters is clear. He needs a substantial boost in name recognition throughout the district, which will automatically contrast with Espada’s high negatives. Once the voters are clear about the specifics of their electoral choice in this primary, they should propel Rivera to victory.
However, this does not mean that the race is anywhere close to over. As an unknown challenger, Rivera is in a good starting position, but he is in that position with just over a month to go until the election, and he has significant ground to make up in a relatively short time to secure a victory.
Come September 14th, the voters of the 33rd Senate District have the opportunity to end an unfortunate two-year experience with a State Senator who has somehow managed to make Albany look even worse and who is under investigation by a half-dozen groups and individuals. This poll demonstrates the weaknesses of Senator Espada.
If the election were held today, the race would theoretically be a toss-up, although historically undecided voters tend to break against well-known incumbents. A month from now, if the media focuses more on the candidates and the campaign engages in far more direct voter contact, Gustavo Rivera should be in a solid position to defeat this unpopular incumbent. To make this a reality, New Roosevelt Initiative needs to engage in an effort to introduce him more fully to the voters and needs to engage quickly.
Yet, there are only five weeks left until the primary, and it is generally assumed that Pedro Espada will use any means available to him to fund his campaign and to deceive the voters of the 33rd Senate District. However, as this poll demonstrates, Espada is NOT as popular as he believes or as many outside observers may suggest, and the voters of this Senate District are have not been persuaded by his two years of self-promotion, nor are they particularly moved by his questionable claims of victimhood.
Download Full Poll
Download Full Results