Bill Thompson and the Last Great Near-Upset

Meet Bill Thompson: The Christine Todd Whitman of New York politics.

Not since 1990, when Whitman – then an unknown, underfunded one-time county official whose longshot campaign against Senator Bill Bradley was universally dismissed by the press and pundits – inexplicably pulled off a near-upset on Election Night have we experienced a surprise quite like this.

Yes, there have been plenty of political upsets in the 19 years since, but you could seem them coming days, weeks, or months ahead of time. They weren’t anything like what New Yorkers witnessed on Tuesday night, when for 20 or so surreal minutes it actually seemed that Thompson–a man who suffered every insult and indignity imaginable during a candidacy that was written off by everyone–might defeat Michael Bloomberg.

It was shortly after ten o’clock – long after the networks and newspapers had called the race for Bloomberg – that Thompson pulled to within 2,000 votes of the man who spent more than $100 million on what was hailed as one of the most formidable political machines ever assembled. No one had seen anything like this coming. (Well, the thought did cross some of our minds.) What was going on?

Eventually, of course, Bloomberg pulled away, if you can call it that, and with nearly all votes counted, he had built a five-point margin, 51 to 46 percent. Five points. That’s what his braintrust of high-priced consultants, army of field workers, and his months of television ads and slick mailers was apparently worth. This was the biggest near-shocker since Bradley– who outspent Whitman 10 to 1–survived by just three points back in ’90.

It may be worth, then, recalling the implications of that 19-year-old New Jersey result for those two candidates.

Bradley came to that election as a certified national star who, it was widely assumed, would win the race easily and then run for president in 1992. Polls consistently showed him 25 or more points ahead of Whitman – and 17 points up in the final pre-election survey. His near-loss humbled him and prompted the media to question its longstanding assumptions about his political skills and strength. That ’92 White House bid never materialized, and in 1996 Bradley left the Senate instead of running again.

Whitman, meanwhile, emerged from her near-upset as the state Republican Party’s new It Girl. Suddenly, she had credibility with the media, donors and activists. She parlayed it into a bid for the governorship in 1993, which she narrowly won, and by 1996 was the subject of national speculation when Bob Dole conducted his running-mate search.

Who knows if Bloomberg’s and Thompson’s political careers will have similar trajectories after Tuesday. Certainly, post-election analysis will focus on what Bloomberg did wrong rather than on what Thompson did right. But in defeat, the comptroller deserves something he was never given by anyone–not the press, not the president, and not his own party–during the mayoral race: a little bit of respect.