The Low-Turnout, High-Suspense Primary of 2009

Tuesday’s Democratic primary will mark an unusual set of circumstances: a series of hotly contested down-ballot races, but no competitive mayoral primary to stoke turnout.

We last saw this combination back in 1993, and it produced some surprises. With incumbent mayor David Dinkins facing only nominal opposition in the Democratic primary (mainly from conservative Roy Innis, who openly supported Rudy Giuliani while running against Dinkins), turnout was low, particularly in heavily black areas.

It didn’t really matter for Dinkins, who still won with 68 percent of the vote, but it may have altered the math in the race for comptroller—in which incumbent Elizabeth Holtzman, who had been banking on running up large margins in black sections of Manhattan and Brooklyn, was forced into a runoff with Alan Hevesi (which Hevesi won decisively)—and in the first-ever contest for public advocate, in which higher black turnout would have boosted then-state senator David Paterson, who was unable to force Mark Green into a runoff.

This year’s mayoral primary is even less noteworthy than in ’93, when at least Dinkins was seen as a viable—if shaky—general election candidate. Sure, it’ll be a nice little feat for Bill Thompson if he can crush Councilman Tony Avella with, say, more than 75 percent of the vote—just as it will be embarrassing if he falls far short of that mark. But either way, his odds against Michael Bloomberg won’t budge.

The fun will be in discovering how what may be historically low turnout affects the three intense down-ballot races:

Public Advocate

Actually, there sort of is a competitive mayoral primary this year: it’s just disguised as the contest for public advocate. The two main combatants, Green and Bill de Blasio, are both likely to aim for the 2013 mayoral race if they win this one.

Green, with past losses for the mayoralty, the U.S. House and Senate and the attorney general’s office under his belt, says he doesn’t see the public advocate’s office as a springboard to one last shot at Gracie Mansion. But come on, it’s Mark Green, the same guy who swore off ever running for office again in September 2006 only to launch his next campaign 28 months later.

De Blasio is younger and lacks Green’s electoral track record, but he’s no less ambitious. Besides, it’s not like there’s much to do with the public advocate’s office (especially now that its budget has been gutted) besides inquire about the mayor’s health and posture for a future campaign. Green should know; he did this quite well between 1993 and 2001, when he last held the job.

The main question on Tuesday is whether Green will crack 40 percent and avoid a runoff. If he does, then get those Green ’13 buttons ready. But if not, he’s in big trouble—he could easily lose the runoff.

De Blasio, with strong union backing, is the only candidate with a good chance of forcing the runoff. Eric Gioia has made plenty of noise, mainly through television, but he is organizationally weak. Norman Siegel, the forth candidate, will probably be a drain on Green, siphoning off A.C.L.U.-ish Manhattanites.

One possible boost for Green: a competitive race for Manhattan D.A. could spike turnout there, which will probably help him more than de Blasio.

 

Comptroller

Here, a runoff is assumed, with three candidates—Melinda Katz, John Liu and David Yassky—vying for the top two spots and a fourth, David Weprin, poised (perhaps) to play spoiler.

In theory, Katz is well positioned to grab one of the runoff slots. As the only woman in the race (and the only woman running for any citywide slot in the primary), she automatically stands out. And has projected an appealing image—feisty, energetic, attractive and even a little humorous—through her television ads. Plus, she enjoys some union support, which could help with turnout. But so far, all of this has only been enough to keep her essentially tied for the lead.

Yassky has angled relentlessly for good-government Manhattan voters, something that paid off when he won the Times endorsement, which his campaign hasn’t been shy about touting. Those fancy television ads with Chuck Schumer, his old boss, have probably gone over particularly well with Manhattan liberals as well. Like Green in the public advocate’s race, Yassky could get a bounce from any extra turnout generated by the Manhattan D.A.’s race.

And if a last-minute poll from Survey USA is to be believed (grain of salt, grain of salt), it’s Liu who has the momentum. He’s relying on labor backing, ethnic pride from Asian-Americans (who don’t typically vote as a bloc, but who’ve never before had one of their own vying for citywide office either) and a broader appeal to all minority groups and low-income voters than any of his competitors. Especially in a splintered field, this could be a formidable coalition—if he can put it together. However, he’s also dogged by his disputed claims of childhood sweatshop employment.

Yassky has some baggage of his own, stemming from his ill-fated 2006 U.S. House campaign in Brooklyn majority black 11th District—an effort that led the outgoing congressman, Major Owens, to brand Yassky a “colonizer.” Yassky has gone to great lengths to mend fences, with some success. But particularly in a runoff with Liu, the lingering resentment from this episode could haunt Yassky with black voters.

Weprin, the fourth candidate, will probably do well to break 10 percent. But he could be a factor nonetheless, given how tightly bunched the other three candidates are. The most logical assumption is that Weprin will take more votes from Yassky, since both have positioned themselves as wonkish fiscal pros.

And, lest we fail to mention this in post-Florida Recount America, but there’s no guarantee the runoff campaign will begin Wednesday morning. There’s always the possibility of a protracted recount that could last for days, maybe even weeks.

 

Manhattan D.A.

The race to succeed Robert Morgenthau seems to have come to this: Cyrus Vance Jr., son of Jimmy Carter’s first secretary of state, has the late momentum, at least anecdotally; Leslie Crocker Snyder is frantically mounting an aggressive push that will either vault her to an upset victory or backfire and hand Vance a larger-than-expected margin; and Richard Aborn is pretty much locked into third place, but has driven the campaign agenda and nudged the other two candidates closer to his progressive positions.

What’s most interesting about this dynamic is how different it could easily have been. It’s always been assumed that Snyder, as the only woman running and with the name recognition earned from her 2005 campaign against Morgenthau, would be one of the last two standing. But until not long ago, Aborn, who scored with some early endorsements, seemed more likely to emerge as her main challenger. Vance’s campaign was adrift and his own skills as a candidate were lacking.

The turning point, at least in terms of the way the race was perceived by the relatively few people paying close attention, seems to have come with the Times’ endorsement of Vance. Had Aborn, whose views made him a very logical Times endorsee, been the paper’s pick, it probably would have certified him as Snyder’s main competitor. Instead, Vance was able to parlay it into a string of significant endorsements, fueling his campaign at a crucial time. And his deft handling of Snyder’s attacks in debates has probably benefited Vance as well, with Snyder coming across as overheated.

The role of gender is the obvious wild card on Tuesday. Snyder has pitched her campaign as a feminist crusade against the “old boys network” that, supposedly, her opponents personify. Will this resonate with female super-prime voters who could put her over the top? Will there be a generational divide among them, as there was in the Hillary-Obama race? Or will women of all ages simply regard Snyder’s last-minute emphasis on gender as an act of political desperation? The Low-Turnout, High-Suspense Primary of 2009