Why Isn’t Michael Bloomberg Pulling Away?

Lest I be accused a month from now of having had my head buried in the sand while this turned into a real contest, let me state for the record: Bill Thompson could end up making this a much tighter affair than we think.

Since he muscled a term-limits extension through the City Council last year, and especially since he and his P.R. machine intimidated Anthony Weiner out of the race this spring, the media has treated Michael Bloomberg’s re-election as a fait accompli—even as the gaping, dominant pre-election polling advantages that marked the run-up to his 18-point 2005 victory over Fernando Ferrer have failed to materialize. (I include myself in this company.)

Historically speaking, the media is on fairly sturdy ground in doing this. Bloomberg retains very healthy personal popularity among voters (a 64 percent personal favorable score, in one recent poll), enjoys one of the most absurd financial advantages in political history, and has picked off numerous key figures from his opponent’s party.

Moreover, that opponent, Thompson, is barely known to voters, has almost no money to define himself, and has inspired so little confidence among his fellow Democrats that President Obama—who has happily campaigned for the two other Democrats running in high-profile races this year—is refusing to lift a finger for him. Thompson’s only major built-in advantage in this election is his party label, and we saw with Ferrer in ’05 (and with Ruth Messinger in 1997) how little that—on its own—is worth.

In this sense, it’s been reasonable to treat Thompson as a dead politician walking. There just aren’t that many examples of candidates who came anywhere close to winning while facing the kinds of barriers that Thompson faces in this campaign. And the few that there are generally aren’t applicable to the Bloomberg-Thompson race.

For instance, unknown, under-funded candidates who were dismissed by the media (and their own party) occasionally pull off shocking upsets in congressional races. But this generally happens because the incumbent has been affected by scandal or finds him or herself swimming against the national tide, or because of some kind of intra-district turf war between the incumbent and his or her local party leaders.

No one sees these coming because congressional races aren’t covered and polled as extensively as statewide contests. If they were, “upsets” of this variety probably wouldn’t really be upsets.

A few examples from this class of upset include the indicted Dan Rostenkowski’s defeat at the hands of no-name Republican Michael Flanagan in an overwhelmingly Democratic Chicago-based House district in 1994, the indicted Bill Jefferson’s loss to no-name Republican Joseph Cao in an equally Democratic New Orleans-based district last year, and 15-term Iowa Republican Jim Leach’s 2006 loss to no-name Democrat Dave Loebsack—the product of that year’s fierce anti-G.O.P. tide.

These aren’t examples from which Thompson can draw much inspiration. Bloomberg, obviously, is not under indictment and is actually viewed quite favorably by the public. And as an independent (and one who has successfully avoided Democratic efforts to tie him to the national G.O.P.), Bloomberg doesn’t risk being on the wrong end of any partisan tide. Plus, if there is an anti-incumbent tide building across the country, it’s not damaged Bloomberg’s job approval—which hovered near 70 percent in one recent poll—enough to do Thompson much good.

But there have been occasions, few and far between though they are, when seemingly unbeatable, personally popular, scandal-free incumbents like Bloomberg have nonetheless found themselves sweating on Election Night for reasons that only began to sink in after the ballots were counted.

Perhaps the textbook example of this occurred across the Hudson nearly 20 years ago, when Bill Bradley sought his third Senate term. Just like with today’s mayor’s race, the press spent the entire campaign dismissing the idea that the election would even be competitive.

Bradley was a popular celebrity (a 60 percent personal favorable rating) who’d been re-elected in 1984 with 64 percent of the vote. He had the right party label for a state that hadn’t sent a Republican to the Senate since 1972, and he had lots of money—$12 million, back when that actually meant something.

His opponent, the then-unknown Christine Todd Whitman, won the G.O.P. nomination for the same reason Thompson got this year’s Democratic nod: No one else wanted it. She was a former county-level official who had zero name recognition and no money.

In its obligatory pre-election analysis of the race, the New York Times wrote that, “New Jersey politicians agree that a Bradley defeat would be a stunning surprise, since Ms. Whitman started her campaign little known to the public and has raised little more than $300,000 to Mr. Bradley's $11 million.” Switch Bloomberg’s and Thompson’s names in and adjust the numbers and that same assessment could be written today (and probably has been).

The New Jersey race ended with a near-miss for the ages. After a white-knuckle night of ballot-counting, Bradley survived by just 55,000 votes—a 50 to 48 percent squeaker that humbled him out of the 1992 presidential race, and that transformed Whitman into a brand-name and helped her claim the governorship in 1993.

The reason for the unexpectedly close contest was taxes: In the summer of 1990, New Jersey’s Democratic governor, Jim Florio, had increased them by $2.8 billion. Bradley refused to take a position on them in the fall and the election results were the first proof that a genuine tax revolt was underway in the state—one that would profoundly reshuffle the its politics over the next few years. Everyone knew the tax hike would be unpopular; the election served notice that the anger was deeper and more enduring than anticipated.

Thompson’s hope is that term limits will be the same under-the-radar phenomenon in 2009 New York that taxes were in 1990 New Jersey. It’s rare for a single issue to become so resonant, but the Bradley example shows that, when it does, it can cancel out just about all of the advantages enjoyed by an otherwise invulnerable incumbent.

Of course, the prevailing assumption this year has been that term limits—a process issue—simply can’t and won’t motivate voters the way a tax hike might. In general, this is true: Congressmen routinely break term limits pledges and pay a negligible price in the next election.

But you could make a case that Bloomberg’s situation is different. He didn’t merely break a pledge—he threw his weight around to change the law, one that had twice been approved by voters. He’s spent his political career (successfully) fighting the idea that he’s just some rich, transactional plutocrat who thinks everything has a price. Against this backdrop, his term limits maneuvering is far more dangerous than simply going back on a promise. It invites emotional resentment from the public.

A new Survey USA poll released on Tuesday showed Thompson within 8 points of the mayor, 51 to 43 percent. Let’s assume for the sake of this exercise that the poll isn’t the outlier it might well be. Given all of his advantages—and the media’s consistent willingness to dismiss Thompson—Bloomberg should be much farther ahead than this.

No doubt the brutal economy is a factor. But it might be that term limits is a bigger explanation than is generally assumed; it would explain why voters who generally like the mayor and generally approve of his performance are keeping their distance. Remember, the fact that he’s not a Democrat (while most voters are) can’t really explain his numbers: Bloomberg also wasn’t a Democrat in 2005, but he led polls then by more than 30 points. Something else is at work this year.

Bloomberg will still probably win this race with plenty of breathing room. But funny things happen. And one of them might be happening right now.