The core premise of Quinn’s campaign strategy has always been that a majority of voters think the city is heading in the right direction and aren’t looking for a drastic change. And that’s a big reason Quinn has stayed at or near the top of the field while enduring months of attacks. In the next two weeks, though, she’ll be trying to do something more difficult than merely hang on: convince enough skeptics that her experience during the Bloomberg years gives her the best chance to fix the weaknesses in Bloomberg’s legacy. She’ll also have to decide how negative she wants to go in suggesting her rivals would take the city backward.
“Her team likes the rhetoric-versus-results contrast for Chris,” a Democratic insider says. “The problem is that all the internal polls are showing what the public polls are showing: De Blasio is surging and becoming kind of a cool, movement candidate for the nontraditional voter. Quinn’s challenge is trying to redefine Bill in the last two weeks for people who aren’t avid watchers of this race. You might see her surrogates going after De Blasio as an untested radical, based on his lefty roots.”
The De Blasio–Quinn clash has helped Bill Thompson appear to be the most adult of the bunch. But his theory of the race has never hinged on what the other candidates are doing, or on his mediocre numbers in public polls. Thompson’s chances depend on turning out black and Latino votes, and he’s stuck to a strategy that mostly flies under the mainstream-media radar, landing the backing of Harlem’s Amsterdam News and elected officials in, for instance, central Brooklyn, particularly by talking about public- school reform. De Blasio is trying to chip away at that base, and Thompson is trying to attract black voters who were drawn to Weiner’s underdog pugnacity—so, in the most recent debate, on NY1, the usually mild-mannered former city comptroller made sure to come across as a passionate fighter, accusing De Blasio of “lying to the people of New York City” in a TV ad about stop-and-frisk.
Far less visible, though nearly as intriguing, are Thompson’s efforts to lock down the Orthodox Jewish vote. Al D’Amato, a Thompson backer, offered some ugly assistance by blasting George Soros, a De Blasio endorser, as “anti-Israel” in the Yeshiva World News, citing a 2011 op-ed in which Soros wrote that Israel is “the main stumbling block” to democracy in Egypt. “The Orthos are very much in play right now between Thompson and De Blasio,” an unaffiliated Democratic strategist says. “And we’re at the stage where 10,000 or so votes could be determinative.”
As primary day closes in, Thompson’s TV ads will be targeted to Latino-focused cable channels, and to daytime shows like Judge Judy that attract a black-female audience. Winning 30 percent of the white vote on, say, the Upper East Side is fine. But to reach the runoff, Thompson needs districts like East Flatbush and Washington Heights to deliver 80 percent of the minority vote.
Oh, yes, the runoff. In a seven-candidate Democratic field, where Weiner and John Liu could reach double digits, any single candidate’s hitting the magic 40 percent is highly unlikely. None of the campaigns will admit to even thinking about the second round, on October 1. But Quinn would be better off facing Thompson, and Thompson would probably choose a matchup with Quinn; De Blasio would love his odds against Quinn. “There’s probably a million dollars in free earned media coming to the person who places first on September 10,” a top Democratic consultant says. “If it’s De Blasio, because he’s still the new kid for a lot of people, he’ll get an even bigger bounce.”
Which only ups the incentive for Quinn and Thompson to knock him out now. The tension of these next two weeks won’t merely decide the undecided voters. It will make the two Democrats who reach the runoff feel like survivors as much as winners.