NEW YORK—The favorability rating for Gov. Andrew Cuomo notched up to 72 percent this month, with New Yorkers applauding his response to Hurricane Irene, according to the Sept. 27 Sienna Research Institute poll. Media-savvy Cuomo earned these ratings through image-control, said panelists who discussed the governor's relationship with the media at the New School for Public Management on Tuesday.
“As [Cuomo] moved into government, most of us in the public policy world noticed that most decisions of any significance were being very tightly managed from the second floor, which is the governor's offices in the Capitol,” said Andrew White, director of the Center for New York City Affairs.
The governor's administration understands that the media is a huge player in shaping public opinion. Decisions on major issues are coming directly from the governor's office.
“Under previous governors, many agency commissioners were outspoken public players, but not so much this year,” said White.
The atmosphere is reminiscent of former Mayor Rudy Giuliani's administration, during which the city agency commissioners could not speak freely without approval from City Hall.
“This is an administration that is incredibly interested in managing message,” said Liz Benjamin, host of “Capital Tonight,” a TV show on Albany politics. “They are enormously good at it. They are artists at managing message. "
On Sept. 27, Cuomo brought former President Bill Clinton to Albany to discuss economic development. The plan was to have the agreement of a $4-billion investment from technology companies be the news highlight of the day. Instead, rank and file members of the Public Employee Federation voted to reject a contract earlier negotiated with Cuomo, triggering the layoffs of 3,500 state employees.
“They wanted the message to be one thing and unfortunately—because that's how news goes—it was another,” Benjamin said.
The New York Times ran the item as a breaking news story on the front page of its website. As a result, Cuomo's strained relationship with the public employee sector became exposed, which can become a long-term blow to his hopes for gubernatorial re-election or a presidential run.
“I would add it's a rare miscalculation on their [governor’s office] part,” said Karen DeWitt, reporter for New York state public radio. “They are usually much more successful in managing the message and really making the governor the star of his own narrative."
Cuomo in Person
In person, the governor is very hands on, shaking hands, patting backs, hugging people, and remembering personal details.
Cuomo is known to be an engaged listener and spends hours on the phone listening to the takes on issues from officials, reporters, and public figures, among others. The majority of the public on the other hand sees the governor through the media.
“Most of the public does not get to meet him, see him, talk to him, [or] get a phone call at all hours from him. So what the public sees is what they see on their local news,” said Steven Greenberg, spokesman for the Sienna Research Institute Poll. “They only see the public persona of Andrew Cuomo or of any elected official. From the public persona, they like him. They like him more than they think he's doing a good job.”
Cuomo has a 72 percent favorability rating, up from 69 percent last month, according to the institute’s Sept. 27 poll. His job performance rating fell from 58 to 55 percent over the same period.
“From the elected official's perspective, his job is to maximize his positive message—and he does an outstanding job of doing that,” Greenberg said.
Cuomo has maintained a relatively high favorability rating throughout a dreary fiscal period, while executive officials usually get blamed for fiscal issues, Greenberg noted. It is unclear how long this image can be maintained.
Decision on Redistricting
A decision on the redistricting issue may become crucial turning point for Cuomo’s positive image record.
The longstanding corrupt practice, also known as gerrymandering, allows the party in power to reshape voting districts to its own benefit. If the governor reneges on a campaign promise for independent redistricting, his favorability with Democrats is likely to tumble, said Wayne Barrett, fellow with the Nation Institute and contributor to Newsweek.
“I think it’s going to be a defining moment when he gets to the redistricting issue,” said Barret. “When he gets to issues like that is when he tests the limits of this strategy.”
Cuomo's interaction with the press is controlled and disciplined to an extreme. He will rarely extrapolate on an issue and does not discuss issues unless they are directly related to the work of his administration.
“He doesn't do a lot of personal discussion; he doesn't opine about stuff,” said Nick Confessore, political reporter for The New York Times.
The tendency to restrict interaction between the governor and the media is prevailing in Cuomo's administration. The governor's press conferences in the Red Room used to be broadcast live. “Now they do not do that; almost never do they do that,” noted Benjamin. “He's not a TV-friendly governor.”
In an effort to address the transparency issue, Cuomo announced the opening of the Citizen Connects website. Citizen Connects publishes daily schedules for the governor, as well as state agencies.