By Carol Tannenhauser
I gave up on polls on Election Day 2016, when, based on state and local polls, The New York Times started the morning with the headline “Hillary Clinton has an 85% Chance to Win.” Late that evening, we all learned a lesson in the fallibility of polling, leaving me wondering: why listen to them?
Still, polls are hard to ignore, especially when you see them tightening in the final stretch of a race, as they have in the contest between incumbent N.Y. Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) and challenger Rep. Lee Zeldin (R). An Oct. 28 Emerson College poll found Hochul up by just 6 points; in September she had a 15-point lead, TIME magazine reported.
How are Upper West Siders — overwhelmingly Democrats — responding to this change of circumstances? To find out, I first sent out an email blast to some friends and acquaintances in the neighborhood. Then, to randomize my sample, I walked from West 81st Street and Columbus Avenue to West 86th and Amsterdam Avenue, and back again, with a stop-off to cast my own vote. (Early voting, by the way, was a pleasure: no lines and the election workers couldn’t have been more helpful. It runs through November 6. Find your polling place here.) In my emails and on my odyssey, I asked approximately 25 self-identified Upper West Siders two questions:
How are you feeling about the governor’s race? And will you watch the returns on election night?
I promised all of the respondents anonymity, allowing them to speak freely. And they did; not one person declined to talk.
“I don’t want my conservatism outed,” a business aquiantance wrote, in response to my email, “but I would not think it the end of democracy or the world if Lee Zeldin won. Kathy Hochul’s inability to rein in New York City’s district-attorney lapses have been a trigger issue for me.” As far as watching the results? “I find election night coverage as riveting as the weather channel and try to avoid it.”
I’m thinking of avoiding TV coverage, too, but for a different reason. A sweet young man I met on the corner of 84th and Columbus articulated it well: “I’m a little scarred from 2016,” he revealed. “I have a bit of PTSD. I think I’ll just wait to find out the next day.”
Another email arrived, this one from a 75-year-old retired lawyer: “This election is a scary one… and teetering dangerously,” she wrote. “I am applying for German citizenship, for which I qualify. Just in case. The election deniers are the most dangerous candidates, and they abound. I wrote more than 300 postcards. I could do no more, as canvassing and other measures are too risky. It is a hard world we are leaving our children and grandchildren.”
“I’m VERY NERVOUS!” another West Side Rag writer wrote. “No plans yet for election night. I might need drinks!” 🥃🥃🥃🥃
Out on the street, as I headed for my polling place, the autumn weather was perfect. The storefronts were decorated for Halloween, and the trees had turned bright yellow. People sat outside drinking coffee; mums lined the sidewalk in front of the florist. A woman hurried by, her curly gray hair flying. “I’m a Republican but I just voted straight Democratic,” she told me. “I’m probably gonna take a Valium.”
At a Columbus Avenue intersection, a 77-year-old man and I looked both ways, twice, before crossing the bike lane. “I’m apprehensive, because if the divisive forces win, the anti-Semitism and other hate will continue,” he said. What’s he doing election night? “I’ll be watching the results.”
A woman nearby overheard us. “I’ll order Chinese food and watch,” she interjected.
“The idea of Kathy Hochel not winning is…life threatening,” a woman on Columbus and 83rd Street said, fiercely. “Abortion is the most important issue! I’ll be watching to the bitter end.”
Two blocks on, at 81st Street, a young woman acknowledged: “I don’t have a strong opinion.” She sounded apologetic. “I have to do more research,” she said, adding: “I won’t watch it. I’m saturated with politics.”
An older woman fell into step with me for awhile to talk about the elections. “I’m upset about every race that’s close,” she said. “Republicans are essentially traitors — put contemptible in there — contemptible traitors. I don’t think there’s a good Republican. I’m horrified by all of them.”
Then, a rare rebuff. “I don’t know enough, sorry,” said a young girl hurrying by. Was she old enough to vote?
“I’m a one-issue guy,” a man said, out of nowhere, pointing out his second-floor apartment. “If you are good to Israel, I’ll vote for you.”
And finally, just steps from home, a woman shook her gray head and said, “I’m shocked that we could produce a candidate [like Zeldin] who is so…Trumpy. This is New York! We’re blue! It’s devastating! No, I won’t watch. I can’t watch. It’s too painful. It’s torture. I’ll wait till it’s called.”
Afterword: Last night, undoubtedly after she got her kids into bed, an Upper West Side mom, age 43, wrote back to my email. Crime, she said, is very much on her mind. “I have a teenager who gets to and from his after-school activities around the Upper West Side by bus and by foot. I worry about him and do not feel that these streets are as safe as I felt they were in past years.” But: “I also can’t see myself voting for someone who believes women should not have a right to choose and [who] voted to block federal funding for abortions.”
This mom said she watched the lone Hochul-Zeldin debate “in between bites of dinner.” The election night returns might not get her full attention, either. “I will be doing what I do every week night: having dinner with my kids, making sure they shower and brush their teeth, read their books and get work done for school, and getting them into bed. Then, if I have any energy left, I will put the tv on and see what’s going on with the race.”