A Poll That Means Less If Bloomberg Is Running Against an Actual Person

There’s a front-page story in the New York Times today about a poll they did with NY1 and Cornell University saying “a majority of New Yorkers say that [Michael Bloomberg] does not deserve another term in office and that they would like to give someone else a chance.”

Which struck me as one of those pieces of data that is perfectly valid and interesting, yet of limited practical use, considering this has been such a sleeper of a race without much indication that anyone or anything will stop Bloomberg from winning a third term.

Does the poll mean that the conventional wisdom is horribly wrong?

The short answer: no.

The poll showed Bloomberg had a job approval rating of 60-34 percent and a positive/negative rating of 48-26 percent. Respondents disapproved of the mayor’s extension of term limits by 58-37 percent, and they were unsatisfied with the quality of public schools to the tune of 54-31 percent.

The poll also showed that Bill Thompson had a 13-2 percent favorability rating, and that 80 percent of respondents were either undecided or did not know enough about him to comment.

It should be noted that the poll was conducted from May 29 to June 3, around the time Bloomberg was mostly getting attention by stepping on his message. Also, it was a survey of 683 New Yorkers – not registered voters or likely voters.

The consensus among number-crunchers I spoke to is that the poll is worth taking note of, but that Bloomberg is still in the same commanding position as he was before it was revealed that New Yorkers are, in the abstract, tired of him.

“The odds of Michael Bloomberg losing are really, really slim,” said Doug Muzzio, a professor at Baruch. He said that the bad news for “Bill Thompson is that nobody knows him, and to get known, he has to spend Bloomberg-type of money, which he doesn’t have.”

David Birdsell, the dean of the School of Public Affairs at Baruch, looked at the poll, and said New Yorkers “don’t see another person they’d rather see in office besides Michael Bloomberg.”

Joseph Mercurio said having people not like Bloomberg isn’t enough to win an election. Those voters need to be convinced to show up and vote, which, so far, they’re probably not going to do, he said.

“They have nobody to vote for, so they stay home,” Mercurio predicted. That is, “unless Thompson can figure out a way to get earned media and pound on those people who are angry at Bloomberg.”

His point gets at the heart of the problem, according to Mickey Blum, which is that it’s important to note Blooomberg’s numbers in comparison to an actual opponent.

“I think the mayor is in no trouble because people in the abstract would like to have someone else, an unnamed someone else. When it’s in the abstract, the unnamed person sounds wonderful. It’s not like they can come up with someone else,” she said. But, “you put any other name in there, and they say they’ll vote for Bloomberg.”

Pollster Peter Feld also didn’t take much stock in Bloomberg’s numbers versus a hypothetical opponent.

In an email, Feld said “(the very question is slightly slanted against incumbents when it says “give a new person a chance”) — I’ve seen plenty of incumbents with a 40% reelect number easily reelected.”

As for what to keep an eye on, Blum says it’s not Bloomberg’s personal approval rating, but rather, quality of life and crime numbers.

In a follow-up email, Blum wrote, “Most people said the overall quality of life in NYC is better or the same, and crime is down or the same, under Bloomberg. That’s far more important to most New York voters than term limits. New Yorkers don’t like what the Mayor did with term limits, they think less of him because of it, but term limits won’t be the issue that matters in the voting booth.”

Feld said, “Ultimately, elections are based on expectations of what someone will do in the next four years, not a reward for past performance, so the key thing is that Bloomberg maintains his job approval rating which is huge considering all his liabilities and the burnout factor reported in the story. Of course this poll will embolden his consultants to shake loose even more money! Though I doubt it tells them anything they don’t know.”