A new poll conducted for city Democrats will do nothing to stem the surge of interest in challenging Michael Bloomberg in 2005, with its portrait of a politically vulnerable Mayor cut off from any reliable base of support and easily damaged by the charge that he is out of touch.
The poll of 401 registered voters is the first attempt to probe Mr. Bloomberg’s weaknesses since a referendum on nonpartisan city elections, which the Mayor supported, failed dramatically on Election Day. The poll will be distributed among Democrats on Nov. 19 and was provided exclusively to The Observer by its authors, Democratic pollster Joel Benenson and consultant Howard Wolfson.
“The poll numbers indicate that Bloomberg is in a very, very weak position,” said Mr. Benenson, best known as a pollster for New Jersey Governor James E. McGreevey. “He’s a Mayor without any political base. He comes across as out of touch and not fighting the fight that New Yorkers expect from their Mayor.”
The results come as Democrats, united in victory over Mr. Bloomberg’s referendum, are beginning to focus on the 2005 Mayoral campaign. The day after the referendum’s failure, supporters of former Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer opened a campaign committee in anticipation of a Mayoral run. City Council Speaker Gifford Miller’s aides expect him to raise more than $300,000 at a reception at the midtown club Noche on Nov. 19. Those two men and a gaggle of others await a decision from City Comptroller William Thompson, who may forgo re-election to his present post in favor of a Mayoral campaign. Some of Mr. Bloomberg’s aides see Mr. Thompson as the Mayor’s strongest would-be opponent.
Mr. Wolfson and Mr. Benenson are using the results to argue that Democrats need to act now to create quick, coordinated responses to Mr. Bloomberg’s policies. That practice is common in Washington, D.C., but has been largely absent here, particularly since the World Trade Center attack on Sept. 11, 2001, muted partisan bickering. Mr. Wolfson, the lean, confrontational campaign spokesman for Senator Hillary Clinton and a consultant in the Democrats’ fight against nonpartisan elections, has been arguing that Democrats must continue to attack Mr. Bloomberg to drive down his approval ratings and keep him on the defensive.
“It is incumbent on us as the loyal opposition to provide an ongoing critique of his efforts,” he said, and a memo accompanying the poll suggests that Democrats hammer away at Mr. Bloomberg as an out-of-touch billionaire and as a lackey of President George W. Bush.
The question of whether the Democrats can retain discipline, or even unity, in confronting the Mayor remains open. But the raw poll results should quicken the pulses of the three leading potential challengers and other hopefuls, including Representative Anthony Weiner, Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields and City Councilman Charles Barron. The poll found that Mr. Bloomberg trailed a generic Democrat 51 to 20 percent-worse even than the 48-to-27-percent margin by which he trailed an unnamed Democrat in a Quinnipiac University poll taken at the depths of his unpopularity in February.
The Democrats’ survey, which has a margin of error of 4.9 percent, found that 55 percent of New Yorkers say they probably wouldn’t vote to re-elect Mr. Bloomberg, with 43 percent saying they will “definitely not vote to re-elect him.”
The poll also showed a striking breadth of weakness. Unlike Rudolph Giuliani, who generated loathing in Harlem and rapture on Staten Island, the disillusion with Mr. Bloomberg appears widespread. The Mayor performs worst in the Bronx, where a generic Democrat won the approval of 59 percent of respondents. He trails by 13 percent in Manhattan and by an astonishing 35 percent on Staten Island, the city’s most Republican borough. Even Republicans, when asked if they would vote to re-elect the Mayor, say no by a 40-to-34-percent margin, although they give him a plurality over an unnamed Democrat.
“He’s losing everywhere-he’s losing with both men and women, Republicans, Democrats, independents, in every borough, with every race,” Mr. Benenson said.
Those results roughly parallel a series of public polls performed before the election, which showed Mr. Bloomberg beginning to edge back into voters’ good graces, but with a long way to go. The Democrats’ poll, however, takes the question one step further, testing out attacks against the Mayor on potential voters.
In the “message-testing” section of the poll, voters were read a positive assessment of Mr. Bloomberg’s tenure (“Not a career politician” who has produced balanced budgets and falling crime) and one of two different attacks. One portrayed him as “an out of touch billionaire who can’t relate to the problems of ordinary New Yorkers” and rattled off a list of unpopular policies, from raising property taxes to closing firehouses. The other reminded voters of the Mayor’s support for President Bush and other Republicans. “How can Bloomberg fight for us, when he’s defending the Republican Party line?” it asks.
Regardless of the merits of the attacks-Mr. Bloomberg was forced to choose between raising taxes and cutting services, neither popular moves-both messages put a severe dent in Mr. Bloomberg’s favorable ratings. The “out of touch” line drove the margin of a Democratic challenger from 31 percent to 39 percent, and both attacks sent the share of voters who gave Mr. Bloomberg a “negative” approval rating skyrocketing.
The memo accompanying the poll suggests that Democrats reinforce the “framework” by reminding voters of policy choices like the property-tax hike and closed firehouses while linking the Mayor with President Bush’s tax cuts, which were perceived as favoring the rich.
Mr. Bloomberg is vulnerable, the memo says, because voters believe he “is too rich to understand them and their problems.”
Goverment by Polls?
The “out of touch” line of attack triggered a characteristic monologue from Mr. Bloomberg’s communications director and top in-house strategist, William Cunningham, who dismissed the notion with a look back at the Democrats he once served.
“That’s what the opponents used to say about Pat Moynihan and Hugh Carey, and it didn’t work,” Mr. Cunningham said. “I’m not disputing their poll, but you can’t run a government on that, and what the voters will be looking for is who can continue to lower crime, lower welfare rolls, reform the schools, create jobs. That’s what we’re going to put on the table. They can put out their poll-and the voters will probably treat that approach the same way they treated all of the people who ran against Pat Moynihan and Hugh Carey.
“I would quote Al Smith to these pollsters and their operatives. I would remind them, ‘Let’s look at the record.’ That’s what Al said. We’ll run on the record.
“People want to know what will you do for them,” Mr. Cunningham concluded. “They don’t want to know, ‘Are you touchy-feely? Are you the guy at the corner store who I can tell my troubles to?’ They want to know what you are going to do to make their lives better.”
“Their argument would work if people didn’t like the Mayor, but thought that the city was going in the right direction,” Mr. Wolfson responded. “But they don’t think the city is going in the right direction.”
The apparent good news for the Democrats comes at a decisive time. Serious challengers to Mr. Bloomberg-as Mr. Ferrer acknowledged by opening his campaign account-must start raising money, honing their messages, and deepening the contrasts between themselves and the Mayor. None of the major candidates has declared, but pollsters’ optimism for a Democrat’s prospects could open up a broader field and encourage waverers like Mr. Thompson to take the plunge.
Advisers to each candidate already are making their cases and testing campaign themes. “Freddy has the added advantage of having a real constituency that he’s shown will come out and vote for him,” said Mr. Ferrer’s pollster, Jefrey Pollock, referring to the Hispanic voters who turned out in unusual numbers to make Mr. Ferrer competitive in the 2001 runoff for the Democratic nomination.
Mr. Ferrer himself said that he thinks hardship in the city has widened since 2001, when he argued that New York had split into two cities divided by race and class.
“The problems are larger and affect many more people than in 2001,” he said. “I don’t understand picking almost gratuitous fights with working men and women, and not fighting with the Bush administration or the Pataki administration that is ruining your city and crushing your middle class.”
Supporters of Mr. Miller, however, doubt Mr. Ferrer’s ability to raise money and wonder snidely which of his incarnations-the_moderate outer-borough candidate of 1997 or the “two-cities” firebrand of 2001-will emerge. Mr. Miller has raised more money than any other city Democrat, and he showed his organizational skills in setting up a network of local campaigns to defeat nonpartisan elections.
“He has the most money, best organization and an actual, detailed record,” an adviser to Mr. Miller said.
But Mr. Miller has his own liabilities. As a male WASP from the Upper East Side, he might not be as well-placed to take advantage of the line of attack that Mr. Bloomberg is “out of touch.” He’s just 34, and aides to other contenders dismiss him as “Bloomberg lite.” He could also be vulnerable to the kind of racially charged primary beating that has damaged other white Democrats, from Mark Green to Andrew Cuomo.
Mr. Thompson, an African-American from Brooklyn, faces a tough, if enviable, decision. He has a good job, and he could serve another term. But if another Democrat takes the prize in 2005, Mr. Thompson will have nowhere to go when term limits force him out of office in 2009. So the worse Mr. Bloomberg looks in the polls, advisers to Mr. Thompson say, the more likely the Comptroller is to take him on.
Mr. Wolfson remained agnostic on which candidate the poll results favor.
They should give comfort to “whichever one wins the primary-providing he can unify the party,” he said.