"Tonight is not about Republicans or Democrats. It's about New Yorkers," Michael Bloomberg told cheering supporters chanting, “USA, USA” on election night of 2001. The photograph on the front page of The New York Times was the city’s new mayor standing beside the new “Mayor of the World” Rudy Giuliani. No one expected Bloomberg to win that election. Six months earlier, in May 2001, Fernando Ferrer had been ahead of Bloomberg by two to one and Mark Green had been beating Bloomberg by three to one.
The terrorist attack on the city changed everything. Giuliani, whose polling numbers were in the toilet before he dropped out of the US Senate race, was now enjoying his highest approval ratings -- 79 percent in the Quinnipiac poll just after the attack. The city’s voters wanted to pull together, not separate along partisan lines. An innocuous businessman who was not caught up in a partisan battle or a tribal political fight typical of the Democrats, seemed like the person to pull us together while the city rebuilt. And he was also supported by Giuliani, who left the impression that Bloomberg would carry on his good works and be able to consult with the master who won his last race in a landslide. Bloomberg promised to carry on what Giuliani started and to expand into areas Giuliani had more or less ignored â€“ he would rebuild the city, keep crime and taxes down, build affordable housing and improve the public schools.
Ferrer that year came from behind, raising the money needed to close the polling gap. He went on to win the primary, but Green rebounded to win a close runoff. Hispanic voters were upset at this loss by their favorite son, and at the tactics used to defeat him. There were also virtually no other contested elections citywide or in minority neighborhoods. All this contributed to a lower than normal Democratic turnout -- about 400,000 votes shy of the turnout in Giuliani’s first two races. Still, the new mayor won with less than fifty thousand votes, less than the margin he received on the Independence Party line, even though he spent almost 75 million dollars of his own money on the campaign.
As we begin the 2005 election, conditions could not be more different. If crime has stayed low, and worries over terrorism have abated, Bloomberg
- raised taxes, some say more than necessary when citizens needed money in hard times;
- gained control of public schools, but has shown little progress in education;
- held press conferences announcing housing, but built virtually no affordable housing;
- and embarked on grand schemes to build things like the West Side stadium with an attitude that says “I know what’s good for the city; the public be damned.”
To win reelection, Bloomberg will have to cover up the fact that he is a Republican who has donated heavily to Republican causes. (He has already announced that he will not be attending George W. Bush’s second inauguration.) Even Bloomberg’s support from Giuliani is tainted not only by the Bernard Kerik fiasco, but also because he was a major supporter of the Bush campaign. In the 2005 election, being a Republican will be noticed and it will be a drag on Bloomberg’s ability to win votes. More than most places, New York City elections start with demographics. The city is overwhelmingly Democratic: There are nearly three million registered Democrats, compared to fewer than 600,000 Republicans. Turnout is heavily female (even when there is no woman in the race), and minority voters make up half the electorate.
Also, over the past decade the non-Hispanic white population had decreased by more than ten percent, while the black population has gone up ten percent and Hispanics have gone up 20 percent. When Dinkins first ran for mayor in 1989, the general election was 61 percent white and 28 percent Catholic; in the 2001 election, the white vote was down to 52 percent and the Catholic vote was down to 20 percent. Over the last four elections, the exit polls also showed that self-described conservative voters declined by almost ten percent in each election. The city has also enrolled 13 times as many new Democrats as it enrolled new Republicans. (In the past, enrollment was only five to one). Add to that the increased partisanship in the city following the Bush-Kerry election, and Bloomberg is at a disadvantage.
Bloomberg has unlimited money, which helped him win his first election. The political campaign trails are littered with the corpses of rich candidates who did not win despite spending vast sums of money. In reelections, money is actually less of a factor since the incumbent is already a known quantity, with a record of both accomplishments and failures. There is a point where additional money does not get you any additional advantage in audience or message. Given how close the last race was, it is hard to argue Bloomberg spent too much money, but his last $5 million was not as effective as his first $5 million. The Democrats will have a massive enrollment, as well as gender and ethnic advantages, which mean they need far less money to get the same communications job accomplished. The Democrat who emerges from the primary will have enough money to make a winning case.
Issues and Experience
After demographics and money, issues and experience create the margin of victory. The Democrats are all current or former elected officials, three of them â€“ former Bronx borough president Fernando Ferrer, current Manhattan borough president C. Virginia Fields and City Council Speaker A. Gifford Miller -- with substantial city government experience. The issues will range from the West Side stadium and its financing to how little Bloomberg has done to improve public education and get state Republicans to respond to city needs. Though the city has been safe since 9/11 and crime continues to drop, there is a sense that a Democrat would have the same success, while fighting for more Homeland Security money from Bush Republicans. Though Bloomberg presses for economic development, he seems to lack concern for jobs and affordable housing for average working families.
Public polls have shown him scoring poorly on diverse issues like taxes, budget priorities, public schools, mass transportation, unemployment and poverty. Voters consistently say that he works hard and fights for the city, but that he does not care about people like them. They approve of him as a person a little more than before, but significant majorities still disapprove of him and more importantly think it is time for a new mayor to take office.
IF NOT HE, WHO?
For any of the Democrats to challenge the mayor they first have to get out of the Democratic primary and the runoff. (If a candidate does not receive 40 percent in the primary the top two contenders duke it out in a runoff election.) Fundraising in a media market as expensive as New York City is a daunting task, though if each Democrat is able to raise the maximum allowed, they enter a level playing field, thanks to the city matching funds program and the limit on spending.
In the last election, conventional wisdom said Ferrer would not be able to raise all the money allowed. Not only did he accomplish this task, he was quick enough on his feet to raise it again after 9/11 to be competitive in the runoff. One would expect that all the Democrats will raise the money this year, though conventional wisdom will question the fundraising ability of Fields, because she is a woman candidate and because she entered the race late; her January fundraising and cash-on-hand figures will probably be the weakest. But I believe (and not because she has hired me as a consultant) that conventional wisdom will turn out to be wrong.
Ferrer needs to keep at least some of the black voters he had in the last election, and again get the unusually high favorite-son vote out in the Hispanic community. He will also have to improve his position with the Catholic and Jewish voters he failed to get last time, which might be a challenge since there are two non-Hispanic white candidates in the race. Fields will have to increase turnout among black voters and women in general. She will need to get a disproportionate share of the black votes, and also enjoy a favorable gender gap against her male colleagues.
With Congressman Anthony Weiner in the race, Speaker Miller will have even more trouble getting into the runoff than Speaker Vallone did in the last race, since Fields comes from the same borough as Miller, Manhattan, and Miller does not have Vallone’s access to Italians or Catholic voters. Weiner for his part needs to be the more conservative outer borough Jewish candidate -- conservative in the Koch-for-the-death-penalty sense (Outside the city, Weiner would be considered a left-wing Democrat). Weiner’s problem, shared by Miller, is the decline in the non-Hispanic white population since Koch ran for office.
Bloomberg can win reelection, but he is more vulnerable than past incumbents. Current polling shows two Democrats, Ferrer and Fields, tied or ahead of him at the start of the year, which was never the case at any time during the last mayor’s reelection campaign. A spirited Democratic primary will result in a unified Democratic Party bent on change and an electorate willing to give them the win.
Joseph Mercurio, a political consultant for more than 30 years, is acting director of New York University’s M.A. program in Political Campaign Management. His clients include C. Virginia Fields.
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