Trump-Clinton Contest Could Feature New York Fight

It has been 72 years since two Empire State residents met in a presidential election.

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It may be completely unrealistic, but Donald Trump wants his fellow New Yorkers to think that he can do something that hasn't been done in 32 years: turn their state red in a presidential election.

Another New Yorker, Hillary Clinton, is almost certain to have something to say about that, if she becomes the Democratic nominee as expected and sets up the first presidential face-off between two Empire State residents in 72 years. 

No Republican has won New York since Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984. Still, local observers don't completely rule out the possibility that Trump -- and his trademark unpredictability -- could force Clinton to spend precious resources defending the state.

"There is a chance that he could put the state in play," said David Caputo, president emeritus and professor of political science at Pace University in New York. "If he continues to strike a chord with his anti-trade policy and his arguments that he can create more jobs, I could see him running reasonably well in Upstate New York and I think he would draw some vote in Long Island."

If a home-state battle unfolds, it could translate into New York political ad spending from Trump or Clinton, a rarity in the state for a presidential campaign.

"New York could see some presidential ad spending for the first time in a long time, but how much remains up in the air and depends on Mr. Trump's ability to raise money or spend his own," said Elizabeth Wilner, a senior vice president at ad-tracking firm Kantar Media/CMAG.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton campaigns outside of Yankee Stadium on April 7, 2016, in the Bronx borough of New York City.
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton campaigns outside of Yankee Stadium on April 7, 2016, in the Bronx borough of New York City.
Photographer: Andrew Renneisen/Getty Images

With the exception of fundraising trips, presidential candidates in recent elections have typically spent little time and virtually no money trying to win New York. With Democrats holding a two-to-one voter registration advantage, the state is viewed as reliably blue.

That hasn't kept Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, from repeatedly claiming that he'll make New York and other Democratic strongholds competitive.

"I'll bring places in play that nobody else can bring," he told California's Republican Party convention last weekend. "For example, New York, I won it by landslide numbers."

Trump won New York's April 19 primary with 60 percent of the vote, but general elections include a much more diverse slice of the electorate. Clinton, who still faces a primary challenge from Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, won the state's Democratic primary with more than 500,000 additional votes than Trump.

Clinton's campaign said it isn't losing any sleep over defending New York.

"We expect the battleground states to look very similar to previous years, requiring Donald Trump to win states President Obama won in both 2008 and 2012,"  Lily Adams, a Clinton spokeswoman, said in a statement. "Hillary Clinton had New Yorkers' backs as their senator for eight years and won nearly two times as many votes as Donald Trump in the primary -- putting it in play seems like a tall order for him."

Clinton, who was born in Chicago, owns a home in Chappaqua with her husband, former President Bill Clinton. Trump was born in Queens and built a career in real estate and reality television in New York City, where he lives.

Even if Trump doesn't think he can win New York, it wouldn't be uncommon for one presidential campaign to try to play a mind game with another on resource allocation, including advertising, in various states.

"Sometimes it's a matter of forcing another candidate to spend places where they would rather not," Caputo said. "If she feels there is any threat, they will want to pivot some resources here."

Others are more skeptical of Trump's New York prospects.

"New York is a blue state and nothing is going to change that, not even Donald Trump," said Patrick Murray, director of the polling institute at Monmouth University.

"Just look at the results of the recent primary," he said. "Even Bernie Sanders, who lost his primary by 16 points, got a lot more votes than Trump did."

Strategists on both sides of the political aisle have said Trump has the potential to scramble an electoral map that has been rather predictable in recent elections, with typically only a dozen or so states being seriously contested.

As of now, things don't look good for Trump in a general election. The Cook Political Report's ratings project him winning just 190 of the 270 Electoral College votes needed to win, compared to 304 for the Democrats.

If Trump were to advertise in New York, Wilner said she suspects it wouldn't immediately be on hugely expensive New York City television. "I would think that any money trying to turn New York purple is going to go first to radio, cable and then to the more expensive broadcast options," she said.

On an earnings conference call Wednesday, an executive with Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc. made note of the potential for Trump advertising in New York and how a contest for the state could boost revenues.

"It will be interesting to see how that state goes now,"  said Steve Marks, a co-chief operating officer of Sinclair's television group. "Sinclair has a big footprint in New York City. We're in Syracuse, Rochester, Buffalo, Albany. And that state, previously as I mentioned, has always been Democratic. That could bode well for us in the upcoming election, specifically with Trump. So, that's a market to take a look at and may be beneficial for Sinclair in particular." 

During the 2012 presidential campaign, only about $55,000 was spent on broadcast television advertising in the entire state of New York, according to Kantar Media/CMAG data. That compares to close to $200 million in Florida, then the top battleground state for spending.

Advertising in New York could ultimately prove to be a luxury Trump can't afford, if he's trying to win in more competitive states, Wilner said.

"It's a very expensive gambit," she said. "But everything about this race has been so unpredictable."

Trump managed to become his party's presumptive nominee by spending next to nothing on television advertising, largely because he enjoyed what has been estimated at close to $2 billion worth of free media attention. "He will have to spend a heck of a lot more money if he wants to win a general election," Wilner said.

Trump's campaign formally announced on Thursday that Steven Mnuchin, a business associate and chief executive of Dune Capital Management LP, would serve as his national finance chairman. That was a first step in trying to build a fundraising operation capable of raising the hundreds of millions of dollars he'll need to compete.

The last time two New Yorkers faced off in a presidential general election was in 1944, when Republican Thomas Dewey challenged incumbent Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Dewey had been elected governor in 1942 after building his reputation as a district attorney prosecuting organized crime.

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