the racie for gracie

Why Bill Thompson Came Up Short Again: A Q&A With His Chief Strategist

New York City Democratic mayoral hopeful Bill Thompson speaks with members of the media after voting at his polling station in Harlem on September 10, 2013 in New York City. Registered voters in New York are voting today in the Democratic and Republican primary races to nominate party candidates for the New York mayoral race.
Photo: Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Bill Thompson was nothing if not steady. In a race rattled by candidate implosions, the reliable Democrat stayed the course and almost forced a runoff, but ultimately conceded to Bill de Blasio on Monday for the good of the party. His second-place finish found Thompson once again outperforming polls and expectations, just as he did in 2009, when he lost to Michael Bloomberg. It just wasn’t enough.

Daily Intelligencer spoke to Jonathan Prince, Thompson’s top strategist and a veteran of the Obama and Clinton administrations, about his campaign regrets and how Bill de Blasio surged past everyone.

This was a race with big narratives — Quinn as front-runner, Weiner as villain, De Blasio as upstart — but how did Bill Thompson fit in?
Bill always fit in in a way that is not as sexy as it is for others, but is an accurate reflection of his career and what so many admire about him. He was a grown-up with real sophistication of judgment and breadth of experience. That’s what he had to offer, and that’s why he did as well as he did.

If you had asked any of the candidates on June 1 if they’d be happy with 25 percent in the primary, they would have said yes, because they would’ve thought it guaranteed a spot in the runoff.

Why concede earlier this week? Should there have been a re-count or a runoff?
We don’t actually know the answer, and that’s part of the disgrace and absurdity of the Board of Elections and Campaign Finance Board. There’s something around 10 percent of the ballots just being counted now, so we have no idea whether or not a runoff ought to go forward or not. By the time we find out that there should be a runoff, it very well may have come and gone. Of course every vote should be counted, but the practical reality is that by the time we know if there should be one, it’d be impossible to actually conduct a runoff.

But that’s not Bill de Blasio’s fault or Bill Thompson’s fault. Democrats in this city should not have to pay the price for the disgusting inefficiencies of the Board of Elections and the Campaign Finance Board’s capriciousness. 

Why couldn’t Thompson convince black and Latino voters?
You say that, but in fact we got half of black voters. I think we were in a couple points with Latino voters. There’s no question that De Blasio ran an excellent campaign and benefited on primary day from a surge across all groups that were reacting to their good campaign and also to coverage that said he was essentially already winning.

In fact, Bill Thompson is the only one who held his own in what people consider to be his natural base, besides De Blasio obviously. [Quinn] got beat among women two to one; there’s a good chance it’ll turn out that De Blasio beat John Liu among Asians. The fact that Bill was able to hold his own with African-Americans against De Blasio is actually a testament to the strength of his support in that community given the depth of the De Blasio surge.

Did you do enough on stop-and-frisk?
I think there was some very unfortunate and erroneous coverage early on. Bill Thompson’s position on stop-and-frisk is exactly the same as Bill de Blasio’s. Both have made clear that the use of racial profiling is a horrible thing and needs to end and should end the minute a Democrat becomes mayor.

What was the biggest misconception about the campaign?
I think we routinely suffered from the absurd horse-race polling. First Quinn was “inevitable” and then Weiner was “dominating the field” — all along I could have told you that the likely runoff would be between Bill de Blasio and Bill Thompson. It was clear that the horse-race journalism was all based on name recognition and that the people who were supposedly leading had massively high unfavorables and didn’t have long-term potential to get votes.

What would you have done differently?
One of the things the De Blasio campaign did exceptionally well was hold a tight lid on spending. It understood from the get-go that in modern campaigns the most efficient way to communicate with voters is through television. The smartest thing you can do is hold down the spending on traditional things like mail and field and street teams and all those things. I wish I had been able to do a better job at that.

Do you wish you went harder against the family messaging of the De Blasio campaign?
Absolutely not. There was some debate inside our campaign — some people wanted to attack De Blasio for using Dante in his ads, and myself, my colleague Eddy Castell, and the candidate, Bill Thompson himself, said attacking the family is off limits. It’s the wrong thing to do, and it’s also not the smart thing to do. Even if you were an utter cutthroat and didn’t care about what was morally right, attacking kids is not only wrong, it also happens to be bad politics.

Why didn’t all of Thompson’s endorsements matter?
I think it is fair to say that there are still people who believe that endorsements are capable of delivering more votes than they actually do. The days of pack-voting are more or less gone. There are a few communities where that exists, but they’re few and far between. While endorsements are important and provide validation and we’re very grateful for the support, I don’t think you can count on them to actually translate into too many votes.

Did people have a leftover perception of Thompson from the 2009 general election?
To be honest, I don’t think there was that much built-in perception. I don’t think people are obsessed about politics the way a lot of us are.

Is Bill Thompson boring?
I certainly don’t think Bill is boring. I think he is funny and interesting and smart and passionate. But he’s not passionate in the way that lends itself necessarily to sound bites all the time.

What’s in his future?
I do not know the answer to that. I think he’s got to think about that.

The first general election poll showed Bill de Blasio with 65 percent to Joe Lhota’s 22 percent. Any chance this thing will be close?
I don’t believe so. I really don’t. I think Bill de Blasio is going to win, and I expect Bill de Blasio to get reelected.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Bill Thompson Chief Strategist Q&A: Why He Lost