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The Remarkable Victory

by Susan Reefer, Dec 01, 2001
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Mayor-elect Michael Bloomberg's victory was, in every way, on every level, remarkable. It was an historical first: no Republican has ever succeeded a Republican in the mayor's office, in the city's history. No Republican has been elected mayor more than once every generation.

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No mayor has ever inherited such a crisis, at any time, anywhere. The issues of financial solvency, and security, and preparedness, and disaster relief, must not blot out the very real issues of running the day to day affairs of this incredible city, the place eight million of us call home. And so the thrill of victory came quietly, and passed quickly, and the Bloomberg campaign began the transition.

That sentiment is appropriate, and those preparations are crucial. But history has been made, nonetheless, and while it is too soon to tell if the Bloomberg victory represents a major change in the way New York City elects its leaders, it may be useful to revisit some assumptions, some of which I put forth in this space over the past year, and take a look at what may have changed when Mike Bloomberg declared victory.

1. "Endorsements matter, or not, depending on who you talk to."
The endorsement by Mayor Rudy Giuliani was a crucial component of the Bloomberg victory. While the endorsement alone would not have guaranteed anyone the victory, I think it is safe to say Bloomberg could not have won without it. This is a momentous shift in electoral politics.

Endorsements have long been seen as a way to increase a candidate's stature, or to deliver one small, loyal block of voters, or to decorate a campaign with a well-known name. Never before has an endorsement had the effect of cha nging the dynamics of a campaign the way this endorsement did. When Rudy Giuliani came out with his public support of Michael Bloomberg, New Yorkers stopped and listened. They took his advice at face value, and believed him when he said that Bloomberg would be the best choice to lead the city. This level of trust and response, while clearly a mark of the respect people have for Mayor Giuliani during this crisis, is still a remarkable development.

2. "Democrats vote for Democrats, Republicans vote for Republicans."
If you want to find out how someone is going to vote, and you can only ask her one question, what do you ask? Even more effective than asking them whom they are going to vote for (sometimes people don't remember the candidates' names) is to ask their party registration. People vote their party. And in New York, where registration is roughly five to one Democratic, that means people vote for Democrats.

It is true that people cross party lines, and that was the case in 1997 when Mayor Giuliani was re-elected with an overwhelming majority, and it was the case in 1993 when he narrowly edged out the sitting mayor, David Dinkins. (Michael Bloomberg's victory was definitive when compared to the close race Giuliani won in 1993).

But the fact that people have voted a Republican into office before, and recently, only makes it more remarkable that it would happen again. An exception to the rule must have a powerful force of persuasion behind it, and that persuasion has to be greater, not less, each time the exception is made.

On election night, as I watched the returns come in, I saw in every down-ballot race (other than mayor) what I would have expected: Democrats elected with sixty, or seventy percent of the vote, while Republicans (if there were any Republicans running) garnering a vote percentage in the teens, sometimes breaking twenty percent. This is a Democratic town, with Democratic elected officials, and Democratic organizations, and Democratic voters. The most competitive elections are Democratic primaries. The prohibitive frontrunner in every election is the Democratic nominee.

To run as a Republican in New York is to start off with a perception problem: it seems that no one with any reasonable ambition of public service would run as a Republican if he or she bothered to glance at the city's voter registration numbers. Michael Bloomberg knew this, and his decision to run as a Republican was a strategic one: a straight shot at the nomination on the plus side, but on the downside, having to overcome a tremendous party registration deficit and a considerable perception problem.

Bloomberg was able to neutralize the perception problem by running a professional campaign with a reasonable message and a broad-based coalition of support. He was not a zealot, and he was running to win. But that still did not mean a level playing field.

Before he could convince voters that he was the right choice, he had to convince them to put aside their loyalty to their party's nominee. The fact that he was able to do so is a testament not only to the strength of his campaign, but to the weakness of the Democratic machine. Whether this is a sign of things to come, or simply an anomaly present in the last three elections, may not be clear even now. But when major shifts in political behavior are recognized, they are usually acknowledged to have started long before. A pattern can't be identified until it is well established. New York may not be headed for Republican political dominance. But the weight of Democratic dominance has shifted, maybe for a long time to come.

3. "Negative campaigning is an effective political tool."
I realized that Michael Bloomberg was going to win the mayor's race about a week before the election. I was sitting at home, watching television, and a political ad came on. The fact that it was a negative ad didn't surprise me, and even the tone and content, with its grainy photographs and lurid accusations, didn't in and of itself catch me off guard. But the realization that it was coming from Mark Green, aimed at Mike Bloomberg, shocked me into full attention.

Negative advertising is a strategic choice. It is based on the widely held and often proven assumption that negative ads, even though they may not be liked, are very effective. People may not enjoy being told about a candidate's bad decisions, or bad judgement, or bad behavior, but they process the information and carry it with them into the voting booth. Negative advertising may not be very nice, but it works.

But it is also a strategy, and it can be a risky one: turning voters against your opponent, at the risk of turning voters off altogether, or worse, turning them against you as well. Which is why I was so shocked to see the Green camp taking such a risk. Only a campaign that is seeing their numbers drop, and their opponent's numbers rise, would consider making such a costly political move. The realization that the Green camp was behind, and desperate, and launching their last-ditch effort was astounding.

Campaigning is about making choices. Both candidates in this campaign had choices available to them, and it would be true to say both campaigns engaged in negative advertising. But all negative ads are not created equal, and voters are well able to tell the difference.

Any communication that focuses on your opponent can be defined as negative. A negative ad can draw a contrast, or raise a question, or present information. To be effective, a negative ad has to be true, meticulously well documented, relevant, timely, and it must be seen as fair play. Bloomberg ran several negative ads, one using Mark Green's own ill-considered words against him, and another using the critical words of prominent Democrats. The ads were well done, they were effective, and clearly they hit their mark.

The ads that Mark Green ran in the final days of this campaign were ad hominem attacks against Michael Bloomberg the man, not the candidate. They were unfocused and vague even in the viciousness of the accusations they made. They were completely out of step with a city and a citizenry trying to focus on healing and unity, and their greatest sin, in my opinion, they looked and sounded as though they had been slapped together in a few hours (which they probably had). These particular ads were new to me, but I recognized them at once: they are the political equivalent of a campaign's dying breath.

Whether there was a time when such tactics would have allowed Mark Green to regain his once "insurmountable" lead, I do not know. But I have a feeling that time is gone, at least for a while. We realize right now, in a way we may not have before, that while cynicism can be healthy, disenchantment can be dangerous. And there is a difference. And that difference is important.

Bloomberg's campaign victory pales in comparison to what it precedes. Michael Bloomberg will be our new mayor, in a time and a place that no one has ever seen, and few could have imagined. And while that will, and should be our focus in the days ahead, it is still true to say that his campaign represented one of the biggest upsets in New York political history.

Susan Reefer is a Republican pollster and media strategist. She is based in New York City.




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