Four Conclusions to Come To About the Closeness of the Mayor’s Race

 

1. Bill Thompson would not have done any better if Barack Obama had actively campaigned for him.

New York Democrats (at least the ones who stayed loyal to their party’s nominee), we are hearing, are now pointing fingers at the White House, which refused to dispatch the president to campaign for Thompson – leaving Thompson to make transparently ridiculous hyped-up claims about Obama’s engagement in the race. The suggestion is that with the mega-popular Obama at his side, Thompson could conceivably have erased his final five-point deficit and actually won the race.

But this assumes that an Obama visit would have taken place in a vacuum, and that it wouldn’t have altered the basic way that voters perceived the Bloomberg-Thompson race.

That’s just not how it would have played out. An Obama campaign swing would have been major news. By itself, it would have attracted more press coverage, locally and nationally, than any other event in the campaign (except, possibly, Bloomberg’s push last year to change the term limits law). And it would have implanted in voters a novel thought: there’s actually a real campaign going on here.

This, in hindsight, would have undermined best thing Thompson had going for him: the widespread assumption by voters that a Bloomberg rout was a foregone conclusion. This apathy is what gave New Yorkers license to entertain the notion of a protest vote: “O.K., I generally like what Bloomberg has done for the city – but God, what a jerk. I have no idea who this other guy is, but I’ll vote for him so Bloomberg’s head doesn’t get too big in his third term.” Or something like that.

An Obama visit – or any event of comparable magnitude – would have changed this calculation. New Yorkers (and the press) would have treated the result as less of foregone conclusion, making voters less amenable to the protest vote idea and more willing to hold their noses while pulling the lever for Bloomberg. By this logic, you could actually make the case the Thompson might have done worse with Obama’s help.

 

2. Never believe the polls when an incumbent Republican mayor is running.

In journalism, three examples make a trend, so now we have one: Bloomberg’s five-point victory on Tuesday marks the third consecutive New York City election in which an incumbent Republican mayor’s margin in the final pre-election polling has fallen by 50 percent (or more) on Election Day.

In 1997, Rudy Giuliani was running 28 points ahead of Ruth Messinger just before the election; his final victory margin: 12 points. In 2005, Bloomberg’s advantage over Fernando Ferrer swelled to 38 points on Election Eve; he ended up winning by 19. And now this year, Bloomberg’s final 12-point spread over Thompson was reduced to five.

This is all the more striking when you consider how lightly-regarded all of those Democratic candidates were. They struggled to raise money and attract media attention and were regarded mainly as sacrificial lambs. And yet each one was able to emerge from Election Day with a surprisingly respectable showing, at least relative to pre-election polling.

This speaks to the power of the Democratic label in New York. Voters may be inclined to support the Republican candidate, but many of them either can’t do it once they’re actually in the voting booth or simply opt to stay home instead. No wonder Bloomberg wants non-partisan elections.

 

3. Even though the race was close, Bloomberg didn’t need every one of the $125 million he spent to win.

The correlation between money and electoral success isn’t as clear-cut as people often assume. The political graveyard is littered with self-funding gazillionaires who opened their checkbooks and lost badly. Anyone remember Al Checchi or Chris Gabrieli or Tony Sanchez or John O’Connor or Blair Hull? Or how about Jon Corzine in New Jersey last night? Money puts you in the game, yes, but it has its limits. (Bloomberg ought to know this: his fortune was only enough to put him 16 points behind Mark Green 10 days before the 2001 election; it was Rudy Giuliani’s campaign ads that finished the job.)

In this race, Bloomberg’s money – lavished on consultants (some of whom seem to have been hired mostly to not work for the other side), television ads, mailers, and an expansive field operation – failed to move the mayor’s poll numbers for an entire year. After the term-limits fiasco last year, Bloomberg led Thompson 49 to 34 percent. In the 11 months since then, his support never crept above 54 percent, and it ended up at 51 percent on Tuesday. Would this really have been any different if the average New Yorker had seen only 250 Bloomberg ads, instead of 500? Doubtful.

What Bloomberg’s profligate spending did do, though, is exacerbate the image problem that he managed very well in his first two terms – but that exploded when he jammed the term limits extension through the City Council. Voters may have generally liked his policies, but they began seeing him as arrogant, transactional and needlessly heavy-handed. Being exposed to a barrage of slick, generic ads (many of them highly negative) and reading and hearing news stories about the obscene amount of money he was spending only fanned this resentment. The presence of so many ads of television didn’t make people like Bloomberg; they reminded them why they didn’t.

 

4. Anthony Weiner might have been able to beat Bloomberg–but it’s not as automatic as you might assume.

So, Bill Thompson runs a dreadful campaign that raises no money and attracts no media attention, and he turns in a pair of woeful debate performances. And he still comes within five points of winning? Imagine what Anthony Weiner could have done!

That’s a compelling line of thought. And there’s little doubt that the ambitious Weiner, who would have run this year if Bloomberg hadn’t and who instead spent the year positioning himself for 2013, is kicking himself for letting Bloomberg’s goons intimidate him out of the race.

But the 46 percent that Thompson netted wouldn’t necessarily have been Weiner’s baseline for a race against Bloomberg. This is related to Point No. 1 in this post – the presence of Weiner, who would have waged a far more aggressive, disciplined, and media-savvy campaign than Thompson did, would have fundamentally altered the way the race was perceived by the press and the general public.

The more noise that Weiner made, the more money he raised, and the more traction he got in polling, the more seriously voters (and Bloomberg’s oppo researchers) would have taken the possibility that Bloomberg might actually lose. The Bloomberg-will-win-anyway-so-I’ll-send-him-a-message votes probably wouldn’t have materialized for Weiner. Voters would have been much more aware of the simple fact that there was campaign. Plus, they would have learned far more about Weiner and what he represents than they ever did about Thompson. Potentially, this could have helped Weiner – but he also might have turned off more voters than Thompson ever did.

It is possible that Weiner would have beaten Bloomberg, or at least come closer than Thompson did. But it’s not quite the “rented mule” scenario Weiner envisioned, after the fact.