As we close the books on the 2012 election, many political observers are already looking ahead to 2013, so let’s take a glance at the Democratic primary shaping up in the New York City mayoral race.
A recent Marist poll provides a window. Council Speaker Christine Quinn leads with 23 percent, with former City Comptroller Bill Thompson at 15 percent, Comptroller John Liu at 9 percent, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio at 8 percent and Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer at 6 percent. Undecided voters—at 37 percent—dominate the field, and with no candidate close to the 40 percent threshold, a runoff looms.
So what should we look for in the coming months to better understand the dynamics of the race?
First, the November 2012 exit polling data for New York City will be a treasure trove. The 2008 and 2009 exit polling data revealed that minorities grew to a 54 percent share of the city’s total vote. What share is the minority vote going to cast in 2013, keeping in mind that historically their percentage is higher in a Democratic primary than the general election?
Exit polling will also yield a bushel of electoral data by gender, ethnicity, religion, income and education levels. This data will be essential for mayoral candidates aiming to craft a message that resonates with voters.
What does each candidate have to do? Quinn has the blessing and curse of being speaker. The blessing is having a high perch in the public eye that will fully arm her with campaign contributions. The curse is that she must take positions on every issue—no matter how grizzled—that comes through the legislative meat grinder. Neither Peter Vallone Sr. nor Gifford Miller found sausage making conducive to the gourmet meals successful mayoral candidates must prepare.
Quinn should avoid that trap of becoming the political equivalent of a suspension bridge with no anchor at either end. On paid sick leave Quinn seems caught in the middle, stymied between satisfying both her political patron Mayor Bloomberg and the overwhelming majority of primary voters, especially women. Quinn, however, can win if she takes clear, crisp positions, forging a winning coalition.
Thompson, the 2009 Democratic nominee, remains an enigma for pundits. His base makes it difficult to envision a scenario in which he would not qualify for a runoff. If the minority share of the vote crosses 56 percent, a candidate with a unified minority base needs only a third of the white vote to win. In 2009 Thompson forged just such a broad minority coalition and got 29 percent of the white vote against Bloomberg.
That math is how political handicappers count. But pundits count differently, for their currency is campaign funds raised, endorsements and media ink.
Thompson has three tasks. One, get better at fundraising. Two, find a compelling narrative. And three, forge a broad minority base, including Hispanics and Asians. Until Thompson achieves success at all three, his currency will remain undervalued by pundits.
Liu has been largely dismissed by practically everyone but the voters. His contention that he can disprove the allegations of fundraising improprieties swirling around his campaign will be tested. Liu took the Asian vote to a 10 percent share in the 2009 primary, as the top of his electoral pyramid of minorities and progressives. Will he get a chance to repeat that feat, or will the growing Asian vote be up for grabs in this primary?
Liu’s third-place standing in the Marist poll demotes de Blasio to second-tier status. De Blasio is a gifted policy messenger and a skilled coalition builder, but he is boxed in at the rail. That position forces him toward risky policy moves. De Blasio’s advocacy of income tax surcharges on the wealthy to fund pre-K could be an example of more high-risk, high-reward plays.
Scott Stringer has a knack for spotting and developing issues. Stringer could forge a potent coalition of progressives and outer-borough ethnics. The question becomes, Can he add minority voters to that base? If Stringer wants to run for mayor, he must shut down all the talk of him dropping down to comptroller so he can knit a policy-based electoral quilt.
It will be fun watching how smartly this crop of Democratic candidates runs heading into next year’s primary.
Bruce N. Gyory is a political consultant at Corning Place Communications in Albany and an adjunct professor of political science at SUNY Albany.