Given New York’s ethnically divided politics, De Blasio leads the Democratic mayoral primary with historically broad support
Long-time followers of New York City politics know that the vote in city-wide elections usually breaks down along racial and ethnic lines. In this year’s comptroller race, for instance, Eliot Spitzer is winning black voters and losing white voters by a wide margin. The mayoral race, however, is a far different scenario.
The latest trio of mayoral polls puts Bill de Blasio just south of the 40% needed to avoid a runoff with likely second-place finisher Bill Thompson, who is 15pt to 20pt behind. De Blasio has made a late charge, but what’s truly surprising to me is how De Blasio is getting to 40%.
De Blasio is trying to hold together the most diverse coalition in modern history to win the Democratic primary for mayor. In the latest Quinnipiac poll (which is far from perfect, though will have to do), De Blasio is at 44% among Hispanic voters, 40% among white voters, and 37% among black voters. This is despite Thompson being black. So, given the margin of error on subsamples, we could say that De Blasio looks to be scoring equally well among all the main racial and/or ethnic groups.
Compare this racial coalition to that of the last white Democrat to win a mayoral primary, Mark Green in 2001. Green took 83% of whites, 29% of blacks, and only 16% of Latinos on his way to winning a runoff against Freddy Ferrer, who is Hispanic, 51% to 49%. The same racial divisions were evident to some degree in 2005 when Ferrer beat Anthony Weiner, in 1997, when Ruth Messinger defeated Al Sharpton, and in 1989, when David Dinkins topped Ed Koch.
Put another way, De Blasio is trying to achieve something unprecedented. A non-Jewish white candidate has not finished first in the Democratic New York mayoral primary in 44 years. De Blasio may be many things, but he’s not black or Jewish. For those us who use history as a guide, the lesson is that the only tradition that endures is the tradition of change.
Many have ascribed De Blasio’s winning coalition to the fact that he’s become the anti-Mike Bloomberg. De Blasio has run to the left in this Democratic primary – seemingly a smart move in a field crowded with competitive centrists. Yet, the data indicate that De Blasio’s edge is not necessarily down to being an anti-Bloomberg.
De Blasio is doing about as well with Bloomberg backers as he is with those who dislike the departing mayor. In a Public Policy Polling survey completed on Sunday night, De Blasio is at 37% among those who approve of Bloomberg and at 39% with those who disapprove. That matches a Marist poll conducted just a few days earlier.
My own guess is De Blasio has masterfully parlayed a mixture of biography and political positioning into broad appeal. De Blasio’s a white Brooklynite who promises to pay attention to the outer boroughs; this allows him to be competitive with moderate and conservative outer borough whites. He’s the most liberal of the major contenders: hence his backing from white progressives. His stances on policing, and astute ads featuring his biracial son, allow him to bring minorities into his coalition.
That is a team of voters who have brought De Blasio to the verge of winning the primary. The question is whether or not he’ll actually get to the magic 40%, to win outright in the first round. With De Blasio at 36%, 38%, and 39% in recently released polls, and with somewhere between 8% and 10% of voters undecided, it seems quite possible that he’ll make it – should the undecided vote break his way.
I still urge caution. In the last five competitive mayoral primaries, one of the two leading contenders received what they polled in pre-election polls but got no more. The other leading contender picked up the vast majority of undecideds. Normally, it’s the leading candidate of color who picks up the most support. The complicating factor is that Thompson is trailing among blacks by 10pt to 15pt, depending on the survey. So, who knows if history will hold?
Adding to the confusion is potential under-the-radar momentum for Bill Thompson. Thompson’s 25% in the Quinnipiac poll and 20% in the Marist survey are his two highest percentages in those surveys to date. He’s picked up 5pt in the last week per Quinnipiac, while De Blasio has dropped 4pt from 43% to 39%. If that is real momentum (and I don’t know if it is), then it could lead to a much closer election night than most predict.
Finally, there have been two instances in the past 16 years where a candidate fell short of 40% on election night yet reached it once absentee votes were counted. It took weeks before Messinger was declared to be over 40% in 1997. By then, they even held a runoff debate between Messinger and Sharpton!
De Blasio likely has got be more than 0.3pt on either side of 40.0% on election night for us to be confident that absentees would clinch it. The fact that De Blasio’s best numbers have come in the final weeks suggests that absentees may, in fact, be less likely to go for him than ballots cast on election day. That means that, unlike those who straddled 40% in years past, De Blasio is more likely to fall back, than spring forward in post-election day counts – if it’s on a knife edge.
Of course, none of this will matter if Bill de Blasio reaches 41%. If he does, it will cap a remarkable two months for the public advocate. If he doesn’t, Thompson’s likely to give him a good fight in the runoff, regardless of early polling. His favorables are as good as De Blasio’s, and Thompson has a tendency to close well.
But enough with my analysis, let’s hear what the voters have to say.