Its advertising revenue may be cratering, its stock price languishing, and it still can't find a way out of its disastrous acquisition of the Boston Globe. But yesterday proved there is at least one place where the New York Times remains robustly healthy and powerful: a New York Democratic primary. The Times endorsed Bill de Blasio for public advocate, helping the Brooklyn councilman with enough Manhattan voters to win yesterday and make de Blasio the surprise favorite in the September 29 runoff against Mark Green. The paper's editorial page also lifted David Yassky from poll numbers in the high teens to a solid 30 percent, putting Yassky into a runoff against John Liu. And Cy Vance Jr., another Times-approved candidate, won the day's most decisive victory — at least in the serious primary races — and will become Manhattan's first new district attorney in 35 years.
Other things were at work, of course: The Times wouldn't have endorsed Vance if he hadn't already received a more important blessing, that of the incumbent, Robert Morgenthau. Liu was damaged by his dubious claim to have worked in a sweatshop as a child, and by his failure to follow through on a promise to return campaign contributions from donors to whom Liu had steered city money (both stories broken by another good-old-fashioned print outlet, the Daily News). Liu and De Blasio benefited mightily from the field work of the Working Families Party. But on a day of pathetic turnout, the Times holds special sway with the hard-core, left-of-center Dems who bother to vote.
About that turnout: The Bloomberg campaign was spinning aggressively even before any primary-day votes were counted, trying to frame how Bill Thompson's inevitable win should be analyzed. "Since 1973," read the Bloomberg campaign's e-mail, "no Democrat has ever become Mayor when overall Democratic turnout was less than 575,000 in the primary." And on primary night, campaign manager Bradley Tusk took it a step further. "If Thompson gets 70 percent of 400,000 votes, that's only 280,000 votes," Tusk said over the roar of the disco chestnut "Got to Be Real" playing on the Bloomberg party sound system. "He'd need to at least double that to win in November. And we're going to get more than a few of those 280,000." The raw numbers turned out to be even smaller — apparently only slightly more than 300,000 people pulled the levers in the Democratic mayoral primary.
But there are two weaknesses in the Bloomberg analysis. City voters aren't stupid: They knew there was nothing at stake in the Democratic mayoral primary, so a low turnout in that category is no shock. The Bloomberg team, of course, interprets yesterday's results to mean that voters stayed away because the vast majority are happy with Mayor Mike. That may be true. The flip side, however, is complacency on the part of Bloomberg's supporters. Only the most motivated voters showed up yesterday. If that's also the case for the general election in November, the electorate could be weighted toward Bloomberg haters. The rare defeat of three City Council incumbents who voted to tear up term limits suggests an undercurrent of civic discontent. Thompson has a long way to go, but his chances depend on stirring up that antagonism. He sure won't be getting the Times' endorsement, considering how the paper's editorial page tied itself in knots backing Bloomberg's term-limits coup.
Meanwhile, there is actually a great deal at stake in the two runoff elections left for later this month. The public advocate is a heartbeat away from becoming mayor. This could actually be the last time Mark Green is on a ballot. Bill de Blasio would be the tallest citywide elected official since John Lindsay. On the comptroller side: John Liu would be the first Asian-American citywide elected official; he's also a slippery character who is on the verge of being in charge of $80 million in city investments. David Yassky is out of the Chuck Schumer school of relentless wonkiness — making him endearing or annoying, depending on your point of view. And if none of that gets you interested, consider this: A city of 4 million registered voters should be embarrassed at the thought of 200,000 souls picking the next two major figures in city politics. Come on, people.