Mayor Bill de Blasio (photo: Ed Reed, Mayor's Office)
Mayor Bill de Blasio often says he doesn’t put much stock in public opinion polls; he believes they’re about as accurate as weather predictions. When asked, he didn’t express much concern after a Quinnipiac University poll released August 1 showed that 51 percent of New York City voters don’t think he deserves to be re-elected in 2017. But even if de Blasio didn’t care, his critics and potential opponents surely did, and are likely buoyed in their belief that there is a way to beat an incumbent Democrat who has been arguably the most progressive mayor in the city’s history and overseen dropping crime, growing jobs, and a record tourism.
As polls show de Blasio’s relative weakness, some voices have grown louder calling for his ouster, and potential opponents weigh jumping into the race, one key question is the best path to defeating him. In an overwhelmingly Democratic city that saw 20 years of Republican dominance of the mayoralty before his election, it’s not immediately clear where de Blasio is most vulnerable.
As can be expected, political consultants are divided on the prospect of de Blasio’s re-election. Republican consultants believe he can be beaten if an opponent uses the right strategy, aptly highlighting the mayor’s weaknesses, while many Democrats are certain the chances of that are negligible at best.
“[De Blasio’s opponents] need to make it a referendum on his competence and his management,” said Evan Siegfried, a Republican strategist. “That includes Democrats, especially in the primaries.”
“An incompetent mayor can lose,” he added.
It is the competence argument that is already being made by the loudest voice to thus far openly declare intention to defeat de Blasio in 2017 - that of consultant Bradley Tusk, who ran former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s third successful mayoral campaign, in 2009. Tusk has said, though, that he believes the most likely path to defeating de Blasio in 2017 is through the Democratic primary. He’s currently waging a public relations campaign to damage the mayor while he attempts to recruit the strongest candidate possible.
As Tusk and others, even Republicans, acknowledge, the voter registration numbers don’t lie. They also see that while de Blasio’s approval rating is low, he still has fairly strong support among Democrats, especially African-Americans.
In order to beat de Blasio, “Republicans and independents will have to appeal to disaffected Democrats and have to bring in pretty much every constituency,” said Siegfried. “Bill de Blasio is absolutely beatable only if you run a good and strong campaign with a solid candidate...They should aim to peel off the pork from where de Blasio is strong, particularly the African-American community.”
On the Republican end, there are already a few candidates who’ve indicated they may run against the mayor, including Queens City Council Member Eric Ulrich; billionaire businessman John Catsimatidis, who lost in the 2013 Republican primary; real estate developer Paul Massey; and former professional football player and Harlem pastor Michel Faulkner. The latter two have officially declared their runs.
Republican campaign consultant Jessica Proud of The November Team, who is working for Massey’s campaign, believes there is a path to victory against the incumbent mayor. “Clearly de Blasio has not been able to inspire the confidence of voters,” she said. “He has not shown himself to be a good manager of the city.” Proud said Massey’s appeal is that he’s not a politician. “He’s not an ideologue, his approach would be one of good management,” she said, with an implicit nod toward a Bloomberg-esque technocrat and citing Massey’s top priorities in the campaign: public safety and quality of life issues, housing, and improving city schools.
The management issue is a common refrain and relates directly to competence. Even though crime is down, Republican consultants point to polls that show the perception of crime remains skewed. Many people believe other quality of life issues, like street cleanliness, are getting worse even if there is evidence to the contrary. The Quinnipiac poll released August 1 showed that 49 percent of New York City voters disapproved of how the mayor is handling crime, compared to 42 percent who approved.
George Arzt, a Democratic consultant, said, “[De Blasio is] vulnerable to a challenge but not from a Republican.” He said that contenders like Massey or Catsimatidis don’t have the same level of resources as Bloomberg did, and that they definitely don’t have the political skills or organization. “There were circumstances that cannot be duplicated as we see now,” he said of Bloomberg’s election as a Republican candidate. “It’s doubtful that anyone even with money can make a go of it.”
Another Democratic strategist, Hank Sheinkopf, said a Republican candidate could only be elected if the city were to undergo a serious crisis, say a crime wave, massive corruption, or another recession. De Blasio's administration and campaign allies are being investigated on multiple fronts by state and federal law enforcement officials - the results of those investigations could shift political dynamics drastically, of course. Short of major indictments, Sheinkopf did point out early indicators of problems -- certain crimes have increased, like rape, but overall the crime rate is at historic lows; school test scores may be improving but the schools are underperforming in general; violence in the city’s jails; and future budget deficits despite the city being flush with cash.
Even with those considerations, Sheinkopf said, “A fusion candidate will have a better chance,” referring to a candidate who runs on multiple party lines. “They have the Republican line and other lines which makes it easier for people to vote for them.” An effective Republican challenger would have to draw crossover votes from traditionally Democratic voting sections of the population, as Siegfried also suggested and any Republican candidate or consultant must understand.
Democrats’ immense voter registration advantage is simply a reality that all involved in New York City political campaigns must recognize. However, one caveat to the voter registration numbers are the voter turnout numbers, which are often quite low. If a certain candidate, incumbent or otherwise, can motivate more people to vote in a significant mass, an election can be swung.
As of April 1, there are more than 4 million active registered voters in the city, of which 2.75 million are Democrats and only 414,478 are Republicans. However, that advantage isn’t necessarily borne out by history, a fact pointed to by Steven Romalewski, director of the mapping service at the Center for Urban Research at the CUNY Graduate Center. In an interview with Gotham Gazette, Romalewski said, “The enrollment advantage doesn’t necessarily tell you much. It matters less than personality of the candidates and the issues. If everyone turned out to vote who is registered to vote and voted the party line, a Democrat would win. But that doesn’t always happen.”
Romalewski noted that a 2013 general election analysis showed that in certain districts, de Blasio received fewer Democratic votes than the total votes cast by registered Democrats, indicating that some may have voted for his Republican opponent, Joe Lhota. In other districts, de Blasio received more votes than the total Democratic votes cast, meaning he had support from outside the Democratic party as well. There were six major qualified parties and 14 minor parties on the general election ballot, with de Blasio holding the Democratic and Working Families Party lines.
The city also has nearly 800,000 unaffiliated voters, often called “independents,” which adds another facet to the Democrat-Republican enrollment imbalance.
“In 2017, I think the same kind of analysis holds,” Romalewski said in an email. “If none or just a small number of Democrats vote for de Blasio's opponent, he'll do ok. But if his challenger can persuade enough Dems to "defect," he'll be in trouble.”
But de Blasio’s great strength, as Romalewski pointed out, is that he “not only did well and much better than the prior three Democratic candidates [for mayor] but also did well in areas where Bloomberg did well. He kinda combined the traditional Democratic base -- Black and Hispanic areas -- with liberal white areas.” De Blasio won a dominant 73 percent of the general election vote against Lhota in 2013.
Critics point to the fact that only 26 percent of registered voters cast ballots in that election, which indicates some combination of apathy, recognition that de Blasio had a huge polling advantage heading toward Election Day, and limited enthusiasm for Lhota from Republicans and independents.
A Republican would have to have a “cache” of progressive politics combined with the skills of a good manager, Romalewski said, to cut into de Blasio’s voter base. “The conventional wisdom is that it’s unlikely [de Blasio will] have effective challengers,” he said.
Most observers assume that the mayor will only face a stiff challenge in the Democratic primary, due to the aforementioned factors and no obvious other big name Republican or independent waiting in the wings. And a tough Democratic primary is only possible, some say, if a single strong candidate runs against de Blasio instead of multiple candidates who could split the anti-de Blasio vote. “If two or three Democrats challenge the mayor, he’s going to win,” said Bill Cunningham, managing director at DKC and former communications director for Bloomberg. “If only one runs, there’s a chance to coalesce the people who view [de Blasio] unfavorably and give them a place to go vote.”
One other path some experts float would be for a strong African-American candidate to enter the race - someone like Congressional Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, for example - who would chip away at de Blasio’s deep African-American base, and one strong white candidate - someone like Comptroller Scott Stringer - who could pick up as many other disaffected Democrats as possible.
Cunningham said for a competitive race, “You need a message, a messenger and you need to be able to deliver that to the public. There’s no mystery to what the recipe is. The trick is finding a candidate who is intelligent and can campaign effectively and has the money to deliver the message to the voters.” Bloomberg had those qualities, he pointed out, but the current crop of contenders don’t. Along with Stringer, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. is currently seen as the other most likely Democratic challenger to the mayor.
When asked about potential opponents, de Blasio has repeatedly said he’s ready to take on all comers, at times mentioning the pillars of his term: universal pre-kindergarten, affordable housing, and low crime. At one point last year de Blasio discussed his "record of achievement" and said of potential 2017 opponents, "come one, come all."
A spokesperson for de Blasio’s campaign, Dan Levitan, emailed a statement about the prospects for 2017, saying, “Crime just hit another all-time low, jobs are at record highs, the City is building and preserving affordable housing at a record pace, while graduation rates and test scores continue to improve. That is Mayor de Blasio's record and that is what next year's election will be about.”
Even Tusk, who is arguably de Blasio’s most vocal opponent right now, acknowledges that he’ll be hard pressed to find a candidate who fits the bill of a Democrat with appeal among Republican voters. He recently indicated to the New York Times that a successful candidate could run on a third-party line in the general even if they lost the Democratic primary; or a candidate could possibly skip the Democratic primary altogether and run on an independent line.
As CUNY’s Romalewski notes, in the 2009 general, Bloomberg did well in areas where he consistently won votes in the prior two elections -- much of Queens, the Upper East Side, Upper West Side, Downtown Manhattan, South Brooklyn, and almost all of Staten Island. His Democratic opponent at the time, Bill Thompson, made it a close race, losing by less than five points. Thompson, who is black, won large blocks in Southeast Queens, Central Brooklyn, Harlem, and the Bronx. Unfortunately for him, though, turnout wasn’t as high in these areas as he needed for a victory. De Blasio upended the pattern in 2013, pulling votes from constituencies that voted for both Bloomberg and Thompson in ‘09.
Romalewski’s analysis of the 2013 election also notes areas de Blasio lost to Lhota, including the traditionally Republican-leaning Upper East Side, Middle Village and other areas in northeast Queens, a few orthodox Jewish communities in Southern Brooklyn, and most of Staten Island. In general, these areas were dominated by white New Yorkers who have been increasingly critical of de Blasio. The mayor overwhelmingly won communities dominated by African-Americans and Hispanics, who continue to support him. The Quinnipiac poll noted as much, finding that in hypothetical match-ups whites largely favored Comptroller Scott Stringer and former City Council Speaker Christine Quinn over de Blasio, who maintained huge margins among African-Americans and Hispanics. (The poll did not include possible Republican candidates.)
In terms of approval rating, 63 percent of black voters and 50 percent of Hispanic voters approve of de Blasio’s handling of the job, while only 25 percent of white voters felt the same. The Democrat-Republican divide is even greater, with 55 percent of Democrats giving de Blasio a thumbs up and only 9 percent of Republicans doing so. Among independents, 30 percent approved of the mayor.
On Tusk’s “NYC Deserves Better” podcast, Democratic consultant and pollster Jefrey Pollock pointed out that despite the mayor’s weakening numbers, he has enough support among African-Americans and Hispanics for a strong showing in the Democratic primary. Pollock noted, and Tusk reiterated, that popular adage that almost every political expert and consultant says of the mayoral race -- “You can’t beat somebody with nobody.” Pollock said independent groups support an opponent of de Blasio, if an effective one were to emerge.
“That is the great challenge,” Tusk said.