The other night, at home, I got a call from Daniel, who identified himself as a Bill de Blasio volunteer. “Do you know who you will be voting for in the Democratic primary?” he asked. No, I said; I’m undecided. “Okay,” he replied. “Can I tell you more about Bill de Blasio?” No thanks, I said: I’m a political reporter, and I already know way too much about all the candidates—even Anthony Weiner has significant merits, at least on policy ideas. “Oh,” he said. “If you know so much, how can you be undecided?”
Good question, Volunteer Daniel. It’s because of the question I’m asked most often by friends and readers: Which candidate would make the best mayor? Many voters have already made up their minds, by looking backward and judging the lives and careers of the contenders. Yet projecting how good any of them would be as mayor is equal parts analysis and faith: Remember that Michael Bloomberg, for most of 2001, was written off by the conventional wisdom as a terrible candidate who’d make a lousy mayor. Then came September 11. The context of the mayoral election changed, tragically. But what the candidates did in the weeks after the terrorist attack mattered a great deal, too. Rudy Giuliani’s endorsement and Bloomberg’s millions were crucial, but so were Mark Green’s mistakes.
I’m not wishing for a repeat of the 2001 test, by any means. And running for office is not the same as running a government. But how the current candidates act and react in the next two weeks—when the pressure is most intense, and major pivots like the Times endorsement and a final debate on September 3 shift the dynamic—will be an excellent indicator of how they would react in the crucible of the mayoralty.
Last week’s De Blasio–Quinn family-values feud was a fascinating start to the endgame. De Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, was quoted in the Times seeming to criticize Quinn’s capacity to empathize with parents. The Quinn campaign reacted with fury, accusing De Blasio and McCray of an “over the line” personal attack. The De Blasio campaign brandished an exculpatory audio recording of the interview in question: McCray had been misquoted. Quinn returned fire: The derogatory meaning was clear, she insisted, even if the quotes were mangled.
The deft staff work that produced the interview recording was a small demonstration of the fact that De Blasio has run the best tactical campaign. The candidate’s formative years in politics were spent as an operative. This year, De Blasio set a shrewd campaign course early on, exploiting an opening to the left of Quinn, then the front-runner. He stuck with his “true progressive” message when hardly anyone was listening, gradually pulling in guilty white liberals by talking about economic inequality and adroitly seizing opportunities as they surfaced.
The question about De Blasio is whether he’s more than just tactics. He’s helped keep Long Island College Hospital on life support, but getting arrested doesn’t deal with the financial forces that are crushing it. He’s selling himself as a clean break from Bloomberg, but agrees with the mayor on the substance of important issues. And while all the candidates have used their families as surrogates and props, De Blasio has gone the furthest, weaponizing his wife, daughter, and son. “This is who we are; it’s our lives,” he told me days before the spat with Quinn erupted, saying he had no qualms about his family’s prominence in the campaign: “Dante, by the time he was 2 and Chiara was 5, they’d slept over at the White House … They participate only how they feel comfortable participating. And so far, that’s worked great for our family.”
It’s also great politics—accentuating the cultural change De Blasio would be from Bloomberg—as long as it doesn’t become a condescending subtext: My family is better than the others. And the next mayor, lacking Bloomberg’s wealth, will need to be politically artful. In the next two weeks, De Blasio will try to fend off attacks while staying true to his game plan. “He’s going to continue to contrast his vision with Quinn’s, every day until primary day,” a De Blasio ally says. “That’s what got him where he is. It’s not even about tearing her down. It’s because she’s the de facto incumbent, the representative of the status quo. By going after her, De Blasio defines himself.”
Quinn, meanwhile, is looking feisty and desperate, competent and compromised. The council speaker has had trouble selling her pragmatism as principled. She allowed her views on public safety to become personalized as support for keeping Ray Kelly as police commissioner. Then she tried the untenable straddle that as mayor she’d reform not just stop-and-frisk but also Kelly, its primary architect. Lately Quinn has appeared more at ease, perhaps because she’s gotten off the defensive and has tried to aggressively punch holes in De Blasio’s record.
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.