It’s like nothing New York has experienced in more than two centuries of voting for president of the United States.
Two hotly competitive primary races – Republican and Democratic – in a state with almost 11 million voters and a trove of convention delegates.
While past primaries doomed New York to afterthought by falling too late on the political calendar, the 2016 affair has sparked two weeks of intense campaigning, five candidates stumping across the state, and the unfamiliar cacophony of broadcast ads in a place usually conceded to Democrats in the general election.
And all waged in and around the nation’s media capital and its ravenous press corps.
It culminates Monday with a rally in Buffalo’s First Niagara Center for Donald Trump, the mega-celebrity who emerged as the surprise political phenomenon of a generation.
And following local appearances by Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, as well as by Ted Cruz (John Kasich got as close as Rochester), voters make their decision on Tuesday.
The preliminaries are over. Now the candidates eye the biggest prize so far.
“They call [one of the primary days] Super Tuesday. This is the big Tuesday,” Trump said in an interview with The Buffalo News. “There’s a lot of delegates, a lot of votes,”
Heading toward Primary Day, the Real Clear Politics poll average shows Trump with a commanding lead among Republicans and Clinton with a major cushion among Democrats.
At stake are 95 delegates to the Republican National Convention in Cleveland and 291 to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. With such commanding leads in their respective parties, Trump and Clinton are expected to substantially pad their delegate totals Tuesday. Not enough to clinch their nominations, but enough to provide a burst of late momentum.
Trump is not yet pronouncing final victory, but he came close Friday in his interview with The News.
“I think we’ll have it. Pretty sure,” he said of the 1,237 GOP delegates needed for nomination. “We’re doing well. We’re going to do really well in New York, and I think we’re going to do really well in every location.”
Trump’s rally in downtown Buffalo on Monday will climax his New York campaign. It is expected to rank as the largest gathering of his statewide effort, and one of – if not the biggest – indoor qatherings of his entire candidacy. National attention will rivet on First Niagara Center, with as many as 19,000 supporters attending.
Trump was scheduled to speak before other large gatherings Saturday in Syracuse and Watertown, and Sunday in Poughkeepsie.
Other candidates have attracted crowds to their appearances too, especially Sanders. He drew about 8,500 to his rally Monday at the University at Buffalo.
Clinton attracted around 2,000 to the Pierce Arrow Transportation Museum on April 8, and Cruz about 300 to a “town hall” event MSNBC arranged Thursday at the University at Buffalo.
Trump spoke to The News from Hartford, Conn., as he prepared to greet a crowd estimated at more than 10,000. His supporters were “going wild,” he said, and highlighted the contrast between his rallies and those of his opponents. The big crowds result from his promise to restore jobs to places like upstate New York, he said.
“That’s why I get standing ovations,” Trump said. “When Lyin’ Ted Cruz comes here, he got 200 people, 300 people. I have 10,000 or 12,000 people standing here. It’s been pretty wild, I’ll tell you. And Buffalo’s going to be a great one, I hear.”
One knowledgeable source said 23,000 tickets have been distributed so far, with access to be granted on a first-come, first-served basis.
The polls showing Trump and Clinton with healthy leads in New York may reflect the organizational advantages both candidates enjoy.
Clinton leads Sanders
Clinton, the former New York senator, is backed by virtually all of the county organizations across the state. That means party stalwarts will be working to turn out the vote on Tuesday, a major advantage for the former secretary of state and first lady.
She also benefits from famous surrogates, such as former President Bill Clinton, who has appeared on her behalf all over the state and in Depew on April 5. Daughter Chelsea Clinton was slated to stump through the Hudson Valley on Sunday and in Binghamton on Monday.
Labor Secretary Thomas Perez, a Buffalo native often mentioned as a potential Clinton running mate, is expected to campaign for her in Erie County on Sunday.
Erie County Democratic Chairman Jeremy J. Zellner said Clinton will be well served by his organization with a “huge canvass effort” and phone banks that necessitated the party renting more space.
“And these are not ‘machine’ regulars,” he said, “these are all real volunteers. I think the trajectory is moving in a positive way right now.”
Sanders, meanwhile, enjoys substantial labor support, and that is expected to serve him well on Tuesday, too.
Unions usually command several local phone banks, translating into hundreds of volunteers urging their members to vote.
But the Democratic race has also turned nasty under the harsh glare of the New York spotlight. In a Brooklyn debate Thursday, Sanders and Clinton staged their fiercest brawl yet.
How confident is Clinton?
She was raising funds with George Clooney in California over the weekend.
How resigned may Sanders be to finishing second?
He took off for Rome after the debate to attend a Vatican conference.
‘Unique’ for Trump
On the Republican side, Nicholas A. Langworthy’s Erie County organization is also committed to Trump.
GOP organizations in many of the state’s big counties are in the Trump column, translating into the same kind of volunteer support that Clinton enjoys.
He noted the irony of the widespread organization support for Trump in New York, while in other states – like Wisconsin – the party leaders worked against him and the governor backed Cruz.
“It’s very, very unique what he is experiencing in his home state with the Republican Party infrastructure working for him rather than against him,” Langworthy said, noting the support of 33 party chairmen across the state.
Kasich has gained local supporters such as Assemblyman Raymond W. Walter and Legislator Kevin R. Hardwick, but has not set foot in Erie County – upstate New York’s largest concentration of Republicans. That appears to be an acknowledgement of Western New York as “Trump country.”
Still, former Gov. George E. Pataki endorsed him in New York City on Thursday, saying he views Kasich as a strong candidate.
“Gov. Kasich is the only one who beats Hillary Clinton,” Pataki told reporters on Thursday, adding the other two GOP candidates will end up “slaughtered” in November.
Cruz, meanwhile, has virtually no organization throughout New York and finds himself in the unusual position of trailing his two opponents in the polls.
Local volunteer Russ Gugino and former Ambassador Anthony H. Gioia have emerged as major local supporters of the Texas senator in recent days, but Cruz also seems to have conceded Western New York to Trump.
Cruz and Kasich have concentrated on other areas of the state in the hope of picking off a delegate here and there and staying alive in case Trump fails to post a majority of delegates in the Cleveland convention’s initial ballot.
Leonard R. Lenihan, Erie County’s Democratic elections commissioner, noted that New York has little experience in contested presidential primaries. But he believes local Democrats will turn out in “healthy” numbers of about 35 percent – possibly higher.
“I think turnout will match or ex
ceed 2008 [when about 103,000 Democrats voted] because both of these primaries are relevant, with home state candidates in both parties facing vigorous opposition,” he said.
Langworthy said he expects GOP turnout to equal the record of about 51,000 voters in 2010 when Buffalo’s Carl P. Paladino was competing in the gubernatorial primary.