Mike vs. Freddy: Race Is Snugger Than You Know

The day Fernando Ferrer became his party’s nominee for Mayor, Michael Bloomberg accepted a nomination of his own.

With Miramax’s Harvey Weinstein beaming over his right shoulder and the Quadrangle Group’s Steven Rattner standing to his left, Mr. Bloomberg stood in an Upper West Side plaza and accepted the nomination as the champion of Manhattan’s power elite, King of the Liberals.

But the “Democrats for Bloomberg” event was less a show of force than an indication of uncertainty. Mr. Weinstein’s defection may deny Mr. Ferrer a few thousand dollars, but he doesn’t exactly swing a lot of votes. And the calculus of who will win, and why, has never been muddier than it is in the 2005 election, in which the incumbent is liked by many but loved by few outside of his East Side set.

Mr. Bloomberg, with his high-profile Democratic backers and his nine-figure budget, looks like a juggernaut, but close watchers of the race for Mayor—including some in Mr. Bloomberg’s own circle—are reaching a different conclusion: Mr. Bloomberg could lose this one.

“The Mayor is doing everything he can to get people to see him as the 10-to-1 favorite or better. It’s impression management,” said John Mollenkopf, a political scientist at the CUNY graduate center. “But the underlying numbers are there to make this a close race.”

The 2005 contest is often compared to 1997, when Mayor Rudolph Giuliani coasted to victory over Manhattan Borough President Ruth Messinger, whose campaign had been crippled by partisan infighting and by the manifest drop in the city’s crime rate.

But the number of Hispanic voters—Mr. Ferrer’s ethnic base—has swelled over the past decade. And Mr. Bloomberg’s lead in the polls, while real, can’t touch Mr. Giuliani’s. A Quinnipiac University poll released on Oct. 1, 1997, for example, showed Mr. Giuliani leading his rival by 21 percentage points. Mr. Bloomberg, by contrast, held leads of 14 and 15 percentage points in the first two polls taken after the primary.

By November of 1997, Mr. Giuliani’s wide margin had tightened, and his relative landslide amounted to a victory of 54 percent to 43 percent, substantially narrower than showed up in the early polls. So expect the race to tighten up, and entertain the thought of Mayor Ferrer.

How Mike Can Lose:

Believe the Hype. Mr. Bloomberg’s friends and his critics agree: He’s no Rudy Giuliani. Nobody is as eager to vote for the man as Staten Islanders were to elect their champion in 1993, or as some Hispanic New Yorkers are to put Mr. Ferrer in City Hall.

But Mr. Bloomberg’s campaign is run, publicly, on the premise that every vote can be his. His first campaign commercial was in Spanish. He’s eaten more soul food in the last two weeks than he consumed in years as a bond trader.

Making a play for every vote, keeping Mr. Ferrer on the defensive—they’re not bad campaign tactics, as long as Mr. Bloomberg doesn’t start to believe his own hype.

But gambling that race will drop out of city politics is to bet on a break with history. And the Mayor’s campaign has set dangerously high expectations. If—or when—the polls tighten, look for a round of stories about “Mike on the Ropes.”

• Embrace Bush. Oops—too late to change this one. Mr. Bloomberg made his bargain with the Republican Party before his 2001 campaign, and he apparently intends to keep it. His personal support for the 2004 Republican National Convention put him among the most generous donors to Bush-related causes in 2004. And he declared at one point that he’d support the President “till the end.”

But while Mr. Bush had been just a political shadow on Mr. Bloomberg’s image, he suddenly threatens to become a blot.

The mishandling of Hurricane Katrina, which horrified Americans of all descriptions, cut particularly deeply with the African-American voters who, coincidentally, are this election’s swing voters. Now Mr. Bloomberg was being associated with a man described by Harlem Congressman Charles Rangel as “our Bull Connor”—a reference to the racist police commissioner of Birmingham, Ala., who turned fire hoses and dogs on civil-rights marchers in 1963. Suddenly, the Mayor was being trailed by a man in a Bush mask.

Abandon the One Who Brung You. Mr. Bloomberg’s response to the President’s new unpopularity was a rapid leftward tack. In the space of a week, he denounced Supreme Court nominee John Roberts and attacked elements of the Gulf Coast rebuilding.

But Mr. Bloomberg was elected by elements of Mr. Giuliani’s coalition, whose core was composed of Republicans and conservative white Democrats from outside Manhattan. With Congressman Anthony Weiner of Brooklyn out of the race, no Democrat is making a serious play for those voters—but Mr. Bloomberg doesn’t exactly have the precincts of Staten Island locked up, either.

His new positions have won him the enduring scorn of movement conservatives—The Wall Street Journal’s in-house blogger, James Taranto, promptly swore fealty to Mr. Ferrer.

But the danger for Mr. Bloomberg isn’t that the “Giuliani Democrats” of Queens, South Brooklyn and Staten Island will flock to his rival. It’s that they won’t vote at all.

• Put Stock in Money. There’s no recent tally of how much money Mr. Bloomberg has spent, but he seems on track to exceed his $73 million total in 2001. But like any shrewd investor, he must be aware that he has probably already passed the point of diminishing returns. So far, his millions have won him the support of somewhat fewer than 55 percent of voters. With his campaign advertising at saturation levels already, it’s unclear what more he can do.

One thing he’s been reluctant to do so far is to go negative on Mr. Ferrer with his TV ads. That could be the most effective use of his money, and the best way around diminishing returns. But his aides know it’s also dangerous: Mr. Bloomberg doesn’t want to come across as a bully.

And Mr. Bloomberg’s billions continue to create a dangerous distance between the Mayor and the voters.

“That must be Howard Dean in the D.N.C. corporate jet,” Mr. Bloomberg remarked one afternoon as a plane flew over his press conference in Corona Park, Queens. But the Democratic chairman, he was reminded, flies commercial.

How Freddy Can Win

Do the Math. The Ferrer campaign calculus is, on one level, purely ethnic. The model is the coalition assembled by David Dinkins in 1989. Mr. Dinkins nearly swept the African-American vote, and he won a solid majority among Hispanics and nearly a quarter of white voters.

Early polls show Mr. Ferrer receiving less than 75 percent of the Hispanic vote, but similar polls in the past haven’t matched up with results. There’s no reason, in principle, why he can’t match Mr. Dinkins’ share of the (shrinking) white vote.

But the real question is where African-American voters will go. The WNBC/Marist poll put Mr. Bloomberg at 50 percent among black voters, but that result would be a sharp departure from historic patterns, in which black voters have been the most loyal to the Democratic Party. It’s not an impossible result, but it’s a figure that any campaign would hate to rely on.

“The Mayor’s making a big effort, but the underlying inclination of black voters is to pull the Democratic lever,” Mr. Mollenkopf said.

Get a Message. Demographic projections take you only so far, as C. Virginia Fields could tell Mr. Ferrer. And his campaign’s thrust has been a bit hard to determine at times. He’s been through three sets of television ad makers and shifted from a generic slogan—“For all of us. For a change”—to an underwhelming one: “It’s a great city. It could be greater.”

Mr. Ferrer’s sharpest attacks on Mr. Bloomberg seem to come on the topic of poverty. (The Mayor has apparently spoken that word just once during his term.) But the exact form of the argument that will bring together poor people and liberals who see a crisis of poverty has yet to emerge.

• Make Tepid Support Real. The leaders of the two groups he needs to grasp—African-Americans and white liberal Democrats—have endorsed Mr. Ferrer in numbers. From former Mayor David Dinkins to Upper West Side Representative Jerrold Nadler, he has lined up more of the establishment than many expected.

But Mr. Dinkins’ endorsement was notably tepid. Another member of the former Mayor’s Harlem circle, Congressman Rangel, also refused to link Mr. Bloomberg and Mr. Bush in a recent interview. And the Manhattan politicians who backed Mark Green in 2001 gave Mr. Ferrer only grudging support this time.

How can Mr. Ferrer get the pols to work on his behalf? Unfortunately, it’s a little circular: He needs to prove to them that he can win.

Capture the Imagination. Mr. Ferrer’s candidacy looks pretty good on paper. But the candidate doesn’t always know how (and when) to turn on the juice, when to embrace the symbolism that presents itself.

He was giving a press conference on poverty and hunger in East Harlem one recent afternoon, demanding easier access to food stamps for the poor.

Midway through the press conference, a somewhat bedraggled man wearing jeans and a baseball cap eased to the edge of the circle of reporters. He’d been pushing a shopping cart up Third Avenue and, in a perfect synergy with Mr. Ferrer’s message, the shopping cart was empty.

When Mr. Ferrer opened the floor for questions, the man tossed Mr. Ferrer a perfect softball: “What are you going to do to get jobs back to New York?”

“Can I answer the press questions first?” said the candidate.

A few answers later, Mr. Ferrer began packing up to leave. The man with the shopping cart called out, “So you’re not going to answer my question?”

Mr. Ferrer gave his stock response, but he’d lost the interest of the man with the shopping cart. Looking unimpressed, the man wheeled his empty cart away.

—additional reporting by Jessica Bruder and Leslie Kaufmann Mike vs. Freddy: Race Is Snugger Than You Know