Bloomberg’s Not-So-Incredible Shrinking Lead

“Bill Thompson cuts Bloomberg’s lead in half!” exclaimed the headline of an Daily Kos diarist’s post on the new Quinnipiac poll that gives Mayor Bloomberg a 10-point edge, 47 to 37 percent, over Bill Thompson, the presumed Democratic nominee.

“Bill hasn’t even released a TV ad yet but he has significantly closed the gap that had Bloomberg leading 54 – 32 percent in June,” ThePrometheusMan wrote. “Bloomberg just keeps on spending money but losing voters.”

Well, that’s one way of looking at the new numbers, particularly if your sympathies are with Bill Thompson.

But a better approach might be to look just a little closer, to the specific question that was posed. Respondents were asked to choose between “Thompson the Democrat” and Bloomberg, who is “running as both a Republican and an independent.” In the last Quinnipiac poll, the one that had Bloomberg up by 22 points, the mayor was identified only as an independent.

Given the dearth of Republicans in New York and the ghastly state of the Republican brand in this city, this seeming shift—a perfectly accurate shift, to be sure—is what accounts for a big chunk of the mayor’s apparent slippage.

There is some recent history to buttress this theory: The last two times Republican mayors have sought reelection, they’ve racked up massive leads in head-to-head pre-election polls, only to see their margins return to more realistic (if still impressive) levels on Election Day, when voters were finally confronted with their partisan affiliations.

For instance, throughout the summer and fall of 1997, Rudy Giuliani’s polling advantage over Democrat Ruth Messinger crept higher and higher. In August of ’97, his lead was 18 points, by early October it was 21, and days before the November election it stood at between 28 and 30 points, depending on which poll you believed. A record-smashing victory seemed to be in the offing.

But on Election Day, Rudy returned to earth some, posting a more modest 16-point victory, 57 to 41 percent. In essence, Giuliani’s final polling lead was cut nearly in half when voters actually went to the polls. Some of this can be attributed to the old truism about undecided voters always breaking for the challenger, but simple party politics played a role, too: Loyalty to their party line prevailed among Democrats who in a party-free world probably would have chosen Giuliani.

The same thing happened in 2005, when Bloomberg racked up even larger margins over his Democratic challenger, Fernando Ferrer, in pre-election polling: 16 points in July ’05, 28 in early October, and a stunning 38 on the eve of the election. But again, the actual number on Election Day proved more modest—19 points, a 50 percent drop-off from the final polls.

We’ve long known that the Republican label does not mean automatic defeat in New York, even though Democrats enjoy a five-to-one registration advantage here. If it did, G.O.P. nominees wouldn’t be on a four-mayoral-election winning streak right now.

But it also seems that, even under the best possible circumstances for a Republican candidate (incumbency, high popularity, strong economy, weak opponent, financial advantage), the G.O.P. label creates a ceiling of between 55 to 60 percent of the vote—no matter what the pre-election polls say.

Yes, many of those ’05 polls also referred to Bloomberg as a Republican, and he had no problem back then racking up leads much bigger than he enjoys in this week’s Quinnipiac survey. So Quinnipiac’s new reference to Bloomberg as the Republican nominee may not be the sole—or even the most significant—reason for his relatively small 10-point edge over Thompson.

Here are some other explanations for the shrinkage:

There may be a backlash for Bloomberg’s lavish campaign spending; 61 percent called it “overkill” in the Quinnipiac survey. Something similar happened in New Jersey in 2000, when Jon Corzine dropped an official $63 million into a U.S. Senate race, which prompted a popular backlash that was costing him an estimated 1 polling point for every $1 million he was spent in the closing days of the campaign. (In the end, he won—barely.)

Then there’s Bloomberg’s general refusal to engage Thompson directly. Just about all of the mayor’s spending has gone into warm-and-fuzzy ads and mailers, and he’s employed a Rose Garden strategy in an effort to be seen as a man above politics. Meanwhile, Thompson has been free to attack, even if he doesn’t have much money to do it with. Bloomberg can change this equation whenever he wants—his aides may have started already—and Thompson’s past role as the president of the hated Board of Education would give him plenty of ammunition.

And there’s the economy, which has eroded (and even destroyed) the popularity of incumbents all across the country. Bloomberg is hardly exempt from this.

Add in residual anger over his term-limits strong-arming, and it’s obvious that Bloomberg doesn’t enjoy quite the same commanding position he did four years ago, or that Giuliani enjoyed in ’97. But he still has much going for him. As a leader, he remains broadly popular, and he benefits from weak, poorly funded opposition.

So Bloomberg lacks some of the soft support that helped him build ridiculous leads in ’05 polls (and that helped Giuliani do the same in ’97). This will probably make for tighter pre-election polling and a reduced Election Day margin.

But really, there’s no reason—not yet, anyway—to suspect that any of it will change the end result.

Bloomberg’s Not-So-Incredible Shrinking Lead