ALBANY — A month ago, in quieter times, Gov. Andrew Cuomo posted a story on Facebook about how scientists at a state college had found a tortoise on the Galapagos Islands previously believed to be extinct. The comments were in line with what can be found on most of the New York governor’s social media posts.
“When will you be extinct?” responded one person.
That’s not what the internet is saying about Cuomo, a Democrat, now. At the conclusion of a week that could very well go down in history as the most consequential stretch of decision-making ever undertaken by a New York governor, Cuomo’s Facebook page featured a brief clip of him urging people to be kind to each other as the coronavirus spreads across New York.
The comments reflected Cuomo’s newfound status as a gubernatorial social media sensation and a more nationally recognized figure than he’s ever been. “I find myself watching your daily briefings because you bring calmness to me,” said one reader. “I don’t live in New York, but my kids do, so I’m pretending you’re my governor,” posted another.
Nearly every aspect of life as New Yorkers know it has been overturned in recent weeks, and Cuomo’s administration is no exception. Quite simply, the governor, one year into his third term, is having a moment. His daily briefings are televised nationally on cable news networks. Observers have analyzed how his often-abrasive leadership style is perfectly suited for the crisis at hand, while others have remarked upon his rising status as a sex symbol. Even Sean Hannity, hardly an ideological soulmate, lavished praise on him during a radio interview on Friday.
He’s not the only governor winning praise, and attention, in this moment of crisis. California’s Gavin Newsom and Illinois’ J.B. Pritzker, both Democrats, and Ohio’s Mike DeWine, a Republican, have also seen their profiles rise as they move to counter the Covid-19 pandemic. Their emergence, and the role that other governors have played in moving quicker than the federal government, are helping shape the politics of this election year — and may shape each governor’s political future well beyond 2020.
But for Cuomo, the most dramatic change involves his reception on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
He has long been one of the country’s most reviled politicians among the sorts of people who regularly post their thoughts on social media. In 2014, for example, an analysis of about 1,200 tweets expressing opinions on the candidates in that year’s gubernatorial race found that only 12 were supportive of Cuomo.
It’s not terribly surprising that the governor has long been more popular at the ballot box than on the internet. While his relative moderation on issues like taxes made him popular among some Republicans early in his career, his victories on issues like gun control led to widespread resentment. The reasons why liberals have never fully trusted him are more complex, but generally can be boiled down to his ruthless pragmatism in an era in which ideological purity has become paramount in the Democratic Party’s left wing.
Much of Cuomo’s base consists of voters who simply want somebody who can rein in Albany’s notorious dysfunction and advance Democratic priorities while keeping any spending increases in a heavily taxed state modest and predictable. This silent majority, almost by definition, consists of the people who are the least likely to voice their political opinions on Facebook.
But by every metric, Cuomo has rapidly emerged as an internet star. In addition to the millions of people who have watched his daily coronavirus briefings on places like CNN, MSNBC and even Fox News in recent weeks, many are actively choosing to watch online. Friday’s briefing was seen by 599,611 people on Facebook, 499,811 on Twitter and 60,683 on his state website, according to the governor’s office.
His Twitter followers have jumped 31 percent, from 863,000 to over 1.1 million, in the past three weeks; his Instagram followers have risen 64 percent, from 56,000 to 92,000. And there are plenty of prominent names who seem to be joining in.
“If only Gov Andrew Cuomo were the president now. #LeadershipMatters,” tweeted actress Mia Farrow.
“@NYGovCuomo has been a steadfast, truthful, tireless public servant throughout the #COVID19 crisis,” tennis star Billie Jean King wrote on Twitter. “As a New Yorker, I am grateful to have him leading our state.”
“I’m officially attracted to Andrew Cuomo,” tweeted comedian Chelsea Handler. “Can we just let him take over for the country? Wouldn’t that be bipartisan? Let’s do that!”
Some of Cuomo’s gubernatorial traits that often vex his critics have served him well during the outbreak. It’s a long-standing Albany tradition to mock the PowerPoint presentations he brings to every major speech, but his straightforward explanations of the contagion’s progress and how the state is handling it — with accompanying visuals — are serving as the fireside chats of the pajama-clad masses in an era when laptops are their strongest connection with the outside world.
There’s also a clear void for Cuomo to fill. President Donald Trump has failed to win over the Democrats who have long loathed him, and comments that he doesn’t take responsibility for his administration’s failures during the pandemic have given critics fodder to argue that he’s not a leader.
The other New York elected official who might become a national icon during a crisis centered in the state is New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. But de Blasio has bungled chances to emerge as a spiritual leader through actions such as his decision to go the gym as recently as last Monday.
And Cuomo has not hesitated to use the state’s powers to dominate the decision-making on topics like whether schools should close and how far the city might go toward having a shelter-in-place order. From a policy perspective, the mayor has largely been left holding the governor’s coat.
The change in fortunes is especially ironic due to Cuomo’s long-standing revulsion for social media.
“Where did it happen that we shifted from a really basically substantive conversation to this celebrity, media, social media, Twitter dialogue that is a mile wide and half an inch deep?” he said in a radio interview last March. “Where celebrity and the number of Twitter followers determines whether you were suited for elected office. And if you have more Twitter followers, then you’re a more viable candidate. Experience doesn’t matter, accomplishments don’t matter. It’s a degradation of the system. It’s a degradation of government.”
He repeated a version of that at his briefing on Saturday.
“’Oh, I thought government was about celebrity, and who can tweet the most and who had the most Twitter followers,’” he said. “No, no. Now government is about do you actually know what you’re doing? Does your government actually work? Can you mobilize it quickly? Now, government is serious.”
The aftermath of that Saturday address? The hashtag #CuomoForPresident rose to at least the 18th spot on Twitter’s list of top national trends, right by #KanyeWestIsOverParty and a few spots above #WhereIsJoeBiden. It was accompanied by another wave of pro-Cuomo comments:
“I can’t believe I’m jumping on this train because of how much I have not been a fan of Cuomo re: our subways. But the clear fact is in 10 minutes he’s been more honest and presidential than Trump has in four years, and I would take him over Biden 100%”
“Just got done watching New York’s Governor @NYGovCuomo and I am just left in wow. Andrew Cuomo’s leadership & patience on leading his states people is amazing.”
“Andrew Cuomo is a goddamn American Hero. This guy knows how to be a leader. Every day I am impressed watching his clarity and organization. He is working his ass off and getting it done. I wish he was the President right now we would all be a lot better off.”
Not that long ago, internet praise like that was harder to find than a Galapagos tortoise.