Joe Lhota clearly deserves credit for his and the MTA’s performance in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. In addition, he has provided real leadership at the MTA and made important strides on pension reform and other issues that have long bedeviled the agency. His strength and capacity for this incredibly difficult job should be recognized and appreciated.
But lost in all the media and political class chatter about how he’d be a strong candidate for mayor is the simple fact that it is almost impossible for him to win.
Now we all know that the last two mayors were Republicans elected against the odds in a Democratic city. So why wouldn’t Lhota be able to continue this trend?
First, New Yorkers don’t know who Joe Lhota is: The elites and the media follow him closely. But ask the average New Yorker about Joe Lhota and you’ll get a blank stare. Chairman of the MTA just isn’t a person that they think about. When Rudy Giuliani ran in 1993, he’d lost a close race only four years earlier, and spent the next four years in the public eye. He had also worked the media for almost a decade as U.S. Attorney, making news on the defining issue in the city at the time, crime.
Second, he can’t spend his way to competitiveness: In 2001, Mike Bloomberg spent multiple millions of his own money just to not be dismissed from the race. As late as June of 2001, he was behind almost 40 points in the polls against any of the Democrats running that year, after already spending $5 million. By October, after $40 million, he still trailed the Democrat nominee by 20 points. He ultimately spent more than $80 million in less than a year, and that was more than a decade ago. Lhota isn’t self-funding and hasn’t even started raising money. Raising $50 million to get in the game, in a matter of months, is more than daunting.
Third, 2013 is not 2001, or even 1993: Both those elections had extremely special circumstances. The 2001 election was held less than two months after the 9/11 attack, an event that made Rudy Giuliani’s endorsement especially critical, and put everything in that election in the context of the attacks. In 1993, crime and disorder in the city weren’t just the most critical issues in an election; they were the defining narrative of New York. During the Crown Heights riots of 1991, Giuliani was already running and very much in the public eye as the face of restoring order. And just in 1993, there were more than 2,400 murders in the city.
Yes, Sandy and the city’s reaction to it is the overwhelming narrative in New York right now. But absent new storms, it is unlikely to be a year from now. As the city rebuilds, Sandy will be an important part of the 2013 campaign, but education, the business climate, policing and ensuring a successful future will re-emerge.
Fourth, New York is a Democratic city: That’s an adage that is trotted out in each mayoral election, and it’s been disproven in the last five. But it is true and the numbers are only increasingly Democratic. What was a 5-to-1 Democratic city by registration when Mike Bloomberg won in 2001 is trending even more Democratic. In the last mayoral election, Bill Thompson only lost narrowly despite being wildly outspent and written off months before the election, in large measure because the electorate that turned out was so willing to vote their party. In a November Quinnipiac poll taken after the positive media attention in the wake of Sandy, Lhota was losing to any unnamed Democratic opponent 60 percent to 9 percent.
Lastly, and most critically, New Yorkers don’t much like the MTA. The media and elites in the city are on the Joe Lhota bandwagon right now, and it is deserved. But the average New Yorker equates the MTA with recent fair hikes and often tough commuting conditions. It’s not fair and it’s wrong. In fact, it is a kind of miracle that the MTA runs a system where anyone in New York can walk down a flight or two of stairs 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and for a little more than two dollars go anywhere else in the city. But the reality is that people need someone, or something, to blame for higher fares, or crowding, or just missing a train. And a nameless, faceless bureaucracy is a pretty easy outlet for that blame.
Even right after Sandy, while 75 percent of voters characterized the MTA’s storm response as “excellent” or “good” they still gave Lhota an upside down job performance of 38 percent to 45 percent, according to Quinnipiac. New Yorkers going into the voting booth and seeing the MTA chairman on the ballot are a lot more likely to think of how they were packed into a subway car that morning than of his wrestling pension concessions out of the unions.
So could Joe Lhota win? In politics, almost anything can happen. Another disaster like a storm or terrorist attack could come close to Election Day and Lhota’s continued strong reaction might catapult him to the mayoralty. He could win the Republican nomination and the Democratic nominee might get caught up in a colossal mistake or a scandal. A super PAC could figure out how to spend enough money, and not get torn apart by the Times and other editorial pages, to really influence the outcome.
But would Joe Lhota win? Extremely unlikely. There are just too many factors, and too many numbers, stacked against his candidacy.
Steven Sigmund is the senior vice president/managing director, communications for Global Strategy Group. Prior to GSG, Sigmund served as chief of public and government affairs for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey; communications director for New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine and communications director and senior policy advisor for City Council Speaker Gifford Miller.