Harold Ford not getting traction in New York

New poll shows incumbent senator leading the former Congressman by over 20 points in potential primary

Published January 15, 2010 10:45PM (EST)

Former Rep. Harold Ford Jr., D-Tenn., has been getting a lot of press lately, ever since he began publicly mulling a Senate bid in New York, where he now lives. But that attention hasn't yet translated into solid poll numbers -- according to a Marist poll released Friday, in a Democratic primary matchup, incumbent Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand has a lead over Ford that stretches into the double-digits.

The results, which show 43 percent of New York Democrats saying they would vote for Gillibrand in the primary and just 24 percent reporting that they would cast their ballot for Ford, don't suggest that a Gillibrand victory is inevitable, though. The primary isn't for another eight months and fully one third of New York Democrats remain undecided.

Ford's problem isn't that people think Gillibrand's doing a particularly great job -- just 24 percent of all registered voters and 31 percent of registered Democrats rate the junior Senator's performance as "good" or "excellent." The bigger issue for Ford right now is that 52 percent of Democrats in the Empire State don't have much of an impression of him one way or the other; fortunately for him, that's an issue he has some time to deal with.

Ford, who had a lengthy interview published in the New York Times earlier this week, is clearly eager to remedy this recognition problem. So far, the erstwhile Congressman from Tennessee has been focused on two somewhat contradictory strategies in his efforts to make himself amenable to voters. He's backing away from the conservative positions he embraced when running for office in a Republican-heavy southern state. At the same time, though, he's painting himself as the kind of independent politician New Yorkers need to represent them in Washington. In fact, he's been harping so hard on this that it's given rise to speculation that Ford might be open to dumping the Democrats altogether and running as an independent.

But Ford's focus on his maverick streak might not be the best tactic in a closed primary -- the poll also showed that 57 percent of undecided registered Democrats think it's more important to have a Senator who "works closely with the Democratic leadership in Congress" than one who "is an independent voice in Congress."

Looking to the general election, the poll has Gillibrand eking out a victory over one potential Republican challenger, former Gov. George Pataki, in November. On the other hand, Pataki looks to be an early favorite in a race against Ford, leading the Tennessee native 42 percent to 36 percent.

By Emily Holleman

Emily Holleman is the editor of Open Salon.

MORE FROM Emily Holleman

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2010 Elections Harold Ford Jr. Kirsten Gillibrand D-n.y. New York