Ed Koch’s 1977 New York City Mayoral Victory: A Good Guide for Mitt Romney in 2012


Whenever I hear commentators speak of how “boring” a Mitt Romney-Rob Portman ticket would be, I am reminded of Ed Koch’s victory in the New York City mayoral race in 1977.


In 1977, believe it or not, Ed Koch, then an incumbent Democratic Manhattan Congressman, was viewed as the “boring” candidate in the New York City mayoral race.  As noted by the New York Times in its April 14, 1988 edition, “It seems hard to believe now, but Mr. Koch had been a relatively subdued figure in Congress who was then pushing his record and was not the vivid political personality that later emerged.”  Mario Cuomo, then the incumbent New York State Secretary of State, was seen by most pundits as the most visionary and charismatic candidate.


Koch’s campaign consultant was David Garth, one of the most competent election advisors in the history of American politics.  He created for Koch one of the most effective campaign slogans over the past century: ”After eight years of charisma and four years of the clubhouse, why not try competence?”  The “eight years of charisma” was a reference to the disastrous mayoral tenure (1966-1974) of the artificially magnetic John Lindsay, and the “four years of the clubhouse” was a description of the ineffectual then incumbent Mayor Abe Beame.


The slogan worked to perfection.  Koch won the initial vote in the Democratic primary, then trounced Cuomo in the runoff, and finally won a landslide in the general election against Cuomo, who ran on the Liberal Party ticket, and the Republican candidate, Roy Goodman.


Now fast forward to 2012.


In 2008, Barack Obama was a rock-star candidate, the most charismatic Democratic presidential candidate since John F. Kennedy in 1960.  Four years later, in 2012, polls show that the voters still like Obama, in fact, more than they like Mitt Romney.  Virtually every poll shows, however, that they disapprove of the incumbent President’s job performance, and they view Mitt Romney as the more competent candidate on the issue of the economy.  Indeed, the quality of charisma in Campaign 2012 has been much devalued, due to the failures of Obama over the past four years.


So for Mitt Romney, as was the case with Ed Koch in 1977, the key is to project himself and his running mate as the more competent ticket.  A Romney-Portman ticket would project superb competence.


Mitt Romney comes into this election with a proven outstanding record in both the private and public sector of executive leadership and management.  Compare that with Barack Obama, who as a candidate in 2008 had no meaningful record of either executive leadership or management.  During his tenure in office, Obama has failed to demonstrate any real executive leadership skill, and his administration is replete with managerial disasters.


Rob Portman has superbly demonstrated his leadership and management skills in the executive positions of Special Trade Representative and Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB).  His tenure at OMB resulted in his obtaining an encyclopedic knowledge of virtually every program in the federal government.


So on the competence issue, a Romney-Portman ticket would overwhelm the incumbent ticket of Obama and his bumbling Vice President, Joe Biden.


Yet Portman’s benefit to Romney is not limited to his record of competency.


Many pundits overlook the fact that U.S. Senator Rob Portman has been one of the most effective campaigners in the modern history of his home state of Ohio.  He won all of his general election races for both U.S. Senate and House of Representatives by landslides. 


Yet Portman’s effectiveness as a campaigner was perhaps best demonstrated in this year’s Ohio GOP presidential primary.  His campaigning for Romney was a major factor in Mitt’s narrow victory over Rick Santorum.  Without Portman’s efforts, Romney would have likely lost the Ohio GOP primary, and Santorum would have become the front runner in the GOP presidential sweepstakes.


No Republican presidential candidate has won the White House in modern times without winning the State of Ohio.  While Romney presently trails Obama in the Buckeye State, Portman’s presence on the ticket would give Mitt an excellent chance of overcoming the incumbent President’s lead and winning Ohio.


Now contrast the political advantage Portman brings to the ticket with the political impact of Romney picking either of the two other most frequently mentioned running mates, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida and Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.


I admire Marco Rubio tremendously.  Some day, he will be a superb Presidential candidate. 


Yet a Fox News Poll in Florida released last week shows that Rubio’s presence on the GOP ticket would yield virtually no discernible benefit to Mitt Romney in the Sunshine State.  The poll showed Obama and Romney in a virtual statistical dead heat, Obama ahead 45-43 with a margin of error of four points.  Rubio’s presence on the ticket only reduces Obama’s margin by one point, 45-44. Obama has a negative job approval rating of 43-48, and that gives Romney an excellent chance of winning Florida without Rubio on the ticket.


As for Paul Ryan, I have tremendous admiration for his courage and integrity, and I actually find great merit in his proposed changes to Social Security and Medicare.  Yet Social Security and Medicare together still constitute the third rail of American politics, and Ryan’s presence on the ticket could constitute political suicide for Mitt Romney.  As far as I know, Mitt Romney is not seeking to become the Dr. Jack Kevorkian of presidential candidates.


So I believe that Mitt Romney will select Rob Portman as his running mate.  A Romney-Portman ticket would have the major advantage on the competency issue, just as Ed Koch had in the New York City mayoral race in 1977.  I believe that like the voters in New York City in 1977, the American electorate in 2012 would opt for competency over charisma and elect a Romney-Portman ticket.



Alan J. Steinberg served as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush. Region 2 EPA consists of the states of New York and New Jersey, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and eight federally recognized Indian nations. Under former New Jersey Governor Christie Whitman, he served as Executive Director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission. He currently serves on the political science faculty of Monmouth University. Ed Koch’s 1977 New York City Mayoral Victory:  A Good Guide for Mitt Romney in 2012