Supposedly, the most suspenseful part of Michael Bloomberg's 2009 re-election campaign already took place, back in October, when the City Council voted 29-22 to lift the two-term limit on his tenure. Compared to that hurdle, convincing a majority of New Yorkers to return him to office would be a light lift for the popular billionaire.
Armed with a bottomless campaign treasury and the powers of incumbency, and free of a Republican label that once made it impossible for big-name Democrats to lend him support, Mr. Bloomberg is supposed to wind up facing an eminently beatable opponent this fall and coast to a lopsided victory reminiscent of his ho-hum 2005 triumph.
But there is a scenario in which the mayor faces a much stiffer challenge–and maybe even loses. It would depend on several variables all lining up against him.
First, Democrats would need to unify behind a strong candidate and avoid an ugly and divisive September primary of the sort that Mark Green struggled to emerge from in 2001.
This is easier said than done.
The two strongest Democratic contenders are Representative Anthony Weiner and city Comptroller Bill Thompson. The problem for Democrats is that the weaker fall candidate of the two, Mr. Thompson, seems more committed to seeking the Democratic nomination. This puts Mr. Weiner, whose relentless aggression and surprising skill as a campaigner would probably pose a more serious threat to Mr. Bloomberg in November, in a tough spot: If Mr. Thompson — a genial veteran of city politics who is widely liked by establishment Democrats — persists in running, Mr. Weiner would essentially have to campaign as the challenger. Yes, he could defeat Mr. Thompson, but at what cost?
For now, there is doubt over whether Mr. Weiner will end up running. If he passes, the nomination should default to Mr. Thompson. (Councilman Tony Avella is waging a very uphill bid for the nomination.) That would spare Democrats a costly primary, but the burden would then be on Mr. Thompson to prove he can mount a vigorous and well-funded general election campaign.
From Mr. Bloomberg's standpoint, the least convenient scenario would probably involve Mr. Thompson begging off and Mr. Weiner swooping in and unifying his party in advance of the primary. That doesn't seem very likely now, but it remains possible (just as it's possible that Mr. Thompson could be an unexpectedly effective fall candidate).
Also of concern to Mr. Bloomberg is the ballot line situation. Without the backing of an established party, his name will be relegated to a remote corner of the ballot typically reserved for fringe candidates. This explains his frantic and (one would think) humbling effort to kiss and make up with the five Republican county chairmen in New York City. In 2007, when he was positioning himself for the national stage, it was in the mayor's interest to sever his ties with them. But now he could really use their official ballot line.
They may say no to him, though. And if this seems like a minor matter, just consider what Mr. Bloomberg is up against. The final three polls of the 2005 campaign gave the mayor leads of 38, 34 and 32 points over Democrat Fernando Ferrer. But on Election Day, his winning margin shrunk to 18 points. That's still very impressive, obviously, but Mr. Ferrer's last-minute gains spoke to the power of the Democratic line in a city dominated by Democrats. The Republican line is far weaker, but it's still reputable; without even that, the drop-off between Mr. Bloomberg's poll standing and Election Day performance could be more severe.
Then there's this: Mr. Bloomberg isn't as popular as he used to be. And it could get worse, maybe considerably. When he was re-elected (with 59 percent of the vote) in '05, the mayor's approval rating stood at 67 percent – almost exactly where it was last October. But in the last few months, partly because of his term-limits maneuver and partly because of the economy, that number has dropped to just 52 percent, according to a Marist poll.
An effective and unified Democratic campaign could capitalize on the electorate's growing restlessness, along with lingering resentment of Mr. Bloomberg's term-limits heavy-handedness. Whether he bears any responsibility for the economic crisis is immaterial; this is the kind of climate in which voters begin throwing out entrenched incumbents. And if the coming months bring more discouraging news, whether related to crime or budget cuts or some other source of popular frustration, the public's receptiveness to a change candidacy will only grow.
The Marist poll gave Mr. Bloomberg a 53-37 percent edge over Mr. Weiner and a 53-36 lead over Mr. Thompson. This isn't bad news for the mayor, but it's not an insurmountable advantage, either. If a 67 percent approval rating translated into 59 percent of the vote four years ago, what would, say, a 45 percent approval rating mean this time around?
This year's mayor's race may well end up being the cakewalk everyone seems to expect. But if the Democrats can produce a candidate without a divisive primary, if the mayor ends up running on the Bloomberg for Bloomberg line, if the city's economy stays down while crime inches up…it won't be.