A Republican political veteran recently chided me for not knowing the results of the recent New York City election. He was responding to my passing mention that Bill de Blasio had won. According to this sage of the right, I was wrong; de Blasio came in third.
I was obviously perplexed by this statement. He then explained that Scott Stringer received 827,562 votes; Letitia James drew 814,878 and de Blasio’s total was 795,679. So, accordingly, de Blasio had come in third.
That reasoning is obviously too cute.
It is absurd to suggest that the election results prove that Stringer and James are more popular than or had more support than de Blasio. Unlike Stringer and James, de Blasio was up against a well-funded opponent who ran a major media campaign and was backed by some powerful supporters. Neither Stringer nor James faced significant opposition in the general election. Moreover, it’s not accurate to say that de Blasio’s victory was anything but impressive. He was elected by a 3-to-1 margin—the largest margin of victory for any non-incumbent mayoral candidate in New York City history. There was no ambiguity about the preference of those who went to the polls, and there can be no question that de Blasio won by a landslide.
Yet still there is something interesting, even insightful, about the observation that Stringer and James outpolled de Blasio. And it raises some interesting questions about the nature of the much touted de Blasio mandate.
Only 25 percent of registered voters came out to the polls—presumably the very core of the Democratic base plus new voters attracted by the de Blasio campaign. In real numbers, approximately 800,000 people voted for de Blasio.
I’m lousy at math. But what I think that means is that in a city of 8.3 million, where there are about 4.6 million registered voters, fewer than one in five registered voters made the effort to actually support our new mayor by going to the polls and pulling a lever for him. While there is no reason to believe that support for de Blasio is anything but strong—after all, it was a landslide—the nature of his victory hints at the possibility that his mandate is something less than robust and may be a little bit precarious.
I have no doubt that hardcore self-described progressive New York City Democrats as well as de Blasio loyalists will take issue with this view of the election. Voter apathy, a sense of inevitability, a primary that mandated the outcome of the general election, the weather, the cycles of the moon, a general malaise…no doubt all these things contributed (and always contribute) to low voter turnout. But it’s hard to simply ignore the fact thatonly one in five registered voters supported the new mayor by actually going to the polls. And it is equally important to remember that most voters believe our last mayor was successful and improved the city during his tenure.
This is not to say any of this suggests that de Blasio is not popular. Nor would I argue that the people of the city do not generally and sincerely support his vision, as of this moment. In fact, the first poll out of the gate, released on Jan. 16 by Quinnipiac University, shows that after two weeks on the job the mayor has an approval rating of 53–13, with 34 percent undecided. Without a doubt most New Yorkers are inclined to like the new mayor.
With that said, at least at this point, it would be misguided to believe that there is ineffable and unwavering support for this mayor. De Blasio has a solid core of supporters and is viewed favorably by most New Yorkers. And it is obvious that several of his proposals have been well received. But while it is clear that the city has embraced universal pre-K, it remains to be seen how universal the support of the mayor is, and whether he will be truly embraced by the city. Indeed, the task going forward have less to do with relying on a statistical mandate and more to do with building a governing coalition.
Steven M. Cohen served as secretary to Gov. Andrew Cuomo. He is currently a partner with the law firm Zuckerman Spaeder and the executive vice president and chief administrative officer of MacAndrews & Forbes.
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