Liz Benjamin: Bread and Politics

Mar 11, 2013

Today's Siena poll brings some bad news for Gov. Andrew Cuomo, finding his job approval rating has continued its downward trajectory and bottomed out at 54 percent - its lowest point since he took office in January 2011.

Things aren't completely cloudy for the governor, however. His favorability rating is better than two-to-one, ND well above that magic 50 percent mark.

Also, New Yorkers broadly support Cuomo's top legislative agenda items this year.

By a 61-35 percent margin, voters support the SAFE Act, even though opposition to the new gun law has been blamed for driving the Democratic governor's numbers down.

Voters also continue to strongly support increasing the minimum wage, and back the idea of creating a system of public campaign financing for the state, enacting the governor's Reproductive Health Act, and decriminalizing the public possession of up to 15 grams of marijuana.

While no elected official - particularly the uber-popular governor - likes to see his poll numbers heading South, what's really noteworthy here is not that this dip has occurred, but rather how long it took to happen.

Cuomo remained unusually popular with New Yorkers through two budget battles, contract fights with the public employee unions and the passage of several controversial policy proposals, including same-sex marriage and the creation of a sixth pension tier.

So, the latest downward slide for Cuomo could be viewed merely as a course correction, bringing the governor down to a more realistic level.

I happened to see my dad, state government expert Gerald Benjamin, last night for dinner. I asked him if he thinks Cuomo has to worry about his poll numbers. His short answer: No.

But what about all those angry upstaters who keep gathering at the state Capitol, waving signs comparing the governor to Hitler for forcing the SAFE Act through the Legislature?

According to Dad, who happens to be a registered Republican and is the CRREO director & associate VP for Regional Engagement at SUNY New Paltz, this is an example of what's known as the "intense minority effect."

The way he explains it to his students: Bread bakers are intensely interested in their product, and pretty much only interested in their product. So when the price of bread goes up five cents, they're motivated to take action against whatever caused that to occur - rising wheat prices, new government regulations, etc.

But for people who buy bread - and probably a lot of other products, too - the cost of this particular staple is important, but not intensely so.

Therefore, if the price of bread goes up five cents, they might be annoyed, but probably not ready to organize a political uprising over it.

Pretty logical, right?

The key to all this for Cuomo is choice. Because if bread is all you can buy, you'd be pretty upset if the price of bread went up, but you'd have no option but to purchase it anyway. 

The again, if you had the option to buy something else - maybe crackers, or pita, or bagels - you might do that instead, at least until the price of bread came down.

Gun owners might be furious with Cuomo as a result of the SAFE Act. Fellow Democrats might be angry with him over his failure to support members of his own party in their quest to retake control of the state Senate.

But if when 2014 rolls around, there's no viable option in the race against the governor, where are these unhappy voters going to go? 

That explains why Cuomo has been raising political cash so aggressively, risking accusations of hypocrisy from those who note he's exploiting the state's lax campaign finance rules even as he calls for their overhaul.

A stockpile of money like the governor's - a whopping $22.4 million as of mid-January - is intended to scare off any potential challengers come next year.

New York's Republican Party is a shadow of its former self. It's all the GOP can do to maintain its weak grip on its last vestige of control in the state Senate, which required a fragile power-sharing deal with five breakaway Democrats to achieve.

Those five Democrats could easily return to the other side of the aisle at the drop of Cuomo's hat.

GOP leaders are already privately acknowledging they're unlikely to find a strong challenger to Cuomo next year.

That means even if the unhappy voters stay home, Cuomo pretty much has his race for re-election sewn up.

Of course, what he really wants is a landslide victory he can point to if and when he chooses to take his game to the national level, or even if he sticks around as governor, enabling him to argue the voters gave him a mandate for his second term.

The election is still well over a year away. But if the Republicans want to remain relevant, they better figure out how to get some bread to those bread-obsessed voters. And quick. 

Liz Benjamin is host of Capital Tonight on YNN. You can follow Capital Tonight all day long at

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not reflect the views of this station or its management.