Well, that was interesting. Far more interesting than anyone expected. Here’s one small measure of what a huge surprise last night’s mayoral race results were, and of how deeply ingrained the political culture’s expectation that Michael Bloomberg would win easily was: At about 9:20 p.m., while milling around the Bill Thompson election-night party inside the Hilton on Sixth Avenue, an out-of-state reporter asked, “Why hasn’t this been called yet? Don’t they call races early in New York?” The night grew later. Still no media declaration of a winner. And still no one suggested the most logical reason: Maybe the race was actually close.
Why was it so close?
1. There’s a major gap between the leaders and the led. Bloomberg collected a mountain of endorsements, from labor unions, editorial pages, churches, and everything in between. The choice of whom to endorse or whether to stay on the sidelines is made by the bosses. Many of those leaders have a personal connection to Bloomberg, or a financial dependence on him, or both. On Election Day, however, the votes of employees, readers, and parishioners count just as much as those of the guys in the big offices. And the rank and file, particularly those making less than $200,000 a year and those among the 10 percent unemployed went strongly for Thompson, or at least against Bloomberg.
2. Don’t believe everything you read in the papers. Or the magazines. Or the blogs. Reporters accurately depicted what was going on during the campaign that Thompson was struggling and sometimes inept, that Bloomberg was spending a grotesque amount of money, much of it on negative ads. Yet the overriding tone of the horse-race coverage and commentary with a handful of exceptions was that Bloomberg couldn’t possibly lose. The polls, showing Bloomberg with consistent leads in the middle to high teens, were crucial in feeding that perception.
Were the polls wrong? Not necessarily; polls capture the responses of “likely” voters, but the pollsters can’t guarantee who will show up on Election Day. But the poll results and the media coverage influenced who did show up: the most highly motivated, including a large proportion who were angry about Bloomberg’s spending and/or his term-limits extension. Turnout was low in part because Bloomberg supporters believed he’d coast to victory, and so stayed home. Maybe if there’d been a steady drumbeat of “this race could go either way” coverage, Bloomberg’s believers would have turned out in greater numbers. Or maybe they’d have been outnumbered by Thompson voters who needed to think the Democrat had a real shot at winning.
3. The voters got it right. Thompson’s campaign and record did not inspire confidence that he was ready to run the city in hard times. Bloomberg’s two-term record is far from perfect, but still above average. And so the mayor’s thin, five-point margin is a perfect split-decision reflection of how the city feels about him right now: solid approval of his job performance so far, but disgust and revulsion at how Bloomberg has gone about holding on to the job. This is even less scientific than the advance polls, but I know people who voted for Thompson not because they wanted him to win, but because they wanted to keep Bloomberg’s margin down. Whether the mayor got the message will determine just how lame a duck he is for the next four years.