11/16/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

NYC Primary: A Low Turnout Coup?

The television screens at Bill Thompson's victory party showed Mayor Michael Bloomberg giving his non-primary non-victory speech shortly after 9 p.m. yesterday. The audio, however, wasn't on. So it looked at times like the mayor was lip-synching the tunes that Thompson's DJ spun, particularly "I Got a Feeling" by the Black Eyed Peas. But never mind what Bloomberg said or sung; the crowd lustily booed the mayor's image, and obediently cheered the returns showing Thompson easily beating Tony Avella for the Democratic nomination.

The real story of the night, however, was in the other numbers being flashed on the screen. In City Council contests, voters delivered the broadest upset to incumbents in recent New York political history. And two citywide races went in a very different direction from what polls indicated a couple weeks or even just a couple days ago. Taken together, those events might foretell an interesting general election campaign.

Thompson's 70 percent tally, which exceeded the 65 percent Bloomberg got against Herman Badillo back in the 2001 Republican primary, gave the comptroller a big enough win against his outspent opponent that Thompson could justify delivering a fiery speech and inaugurating a Dick Van Patten-inspired campaign slogan. It also left enough room for Avella, a Queens councilman, to claim a moral victory. At restaurant in Little Italy, Avella stood on a chair to tell supporters, "We sent a message to the body politic and to Mayor Bloomberg: We're not going to stand for politics as usual."

Bloomberg, oddly, took the same line. He spoke in front of a banner that read "Progress, Not Politics." The two-term mayor and generous donor to the Republican and Independence parties, who in recent years showed some interest in becoming president or governor, has new ads out that trumpet the same slogan. And trumpet and trumpet: On some news websites this morning there were as many as five Bloomberg ads visible on a single page. That shows clear progress over the days when there were only one or two Bloomberg ads per page. Not politics.

Meanwhile, in at least three City Council districts—and perhaps as many as six—voters were turning out incumbent Council members. That's pretty big. If you go back to 1989, which was the first election under the campaign finance system, incumbents have enjoyed a 97.5 percent re-election rate.

In the seven citywide Council elections during those two decades, never have more than two sitting Council members lost their seats on a single night, and even that hasn't happened since 1993.

Yesterday, Alan Gerson of Manhattan, Helen Sears of Queens and Kendall Stewart of Brooklyn were defeated. All three were elected in 2001, and all three voted for the mayor's term limits extension (although Stewart had other problems, too).

Maria Baez of the Bronx, who supported the term limits extension, was opposed by the Bronx Democratic organization and has taken flak for her very poor attendance; she appears to have lost as well.

In Queens, Thomas White was clinging to a six-vote lead. White in 2005 won the same seat he'd held for 10 years before term limits forced him out in 2001. White also supported the term limits extension.

Staten Island's Ken Mitchell—technically an incumbent because he has been in the Council since a February special election—also lost. He wasn't in the Council for the term limits vote.

Other incumbents who were threatened survived, including several who'd taken heat for backing the term limits change. One was Oliver Koppell in the north Bronx. His final and perhaps most effective piece of mail listed six reasons not to vote for challenger Tony Cassino. One of them was that Cassino supports Bloomberg, and Bloomberg was the force behind the term limits change.

Bloomberg has not faced a primary challenge since Badillo's eight years ago. In 2005, the mayor's team got potential rival Tom Ognibene, who ran to Bloomberg's right, bounced from the ballot. This year, his lone long-shot opponent was forced off the ballot by the Board of Elections. A few weeks later, Bloomberg introduced a plan for easier ballot access.

Surrogates of the mayor pooh-poohed the Democrats' pathetic turnout. "That tells you where the energy is in this race," Bradley Tusk, the mayor's campaign manager, told NY1. Indeed, the 350,000 or so turnout was pretty anemic. For what it's worth, Thompson took more votes than the top vote-getter in the two previous Democratic primaries, although those contests featured several serious candidates.

An interesting number in some recent polls is the share of Democrats supporting the mayor. Four years ago, a pre-primary Q-poll found Bloomberg with a 58-32 lead among Dems. This time around, a recent poll found the Dems split 44-44 between the mayor and Thompson.

Other pre-election polls this year had Mark Green near the magic 40 percent in the race for public advocate. In fact, he came in second to Bill de Blasio. A few surveys had Melinda Katz leading the field for comptroller, but she finished a distant third to John Liu and David Yassky.

Low turnout often wreaks havoc on polls and rewards candidates with big get-out-the-vote operations. De Blasio actually had signs up in my distant and usually neglected neighborhood of Norwood. Liu wrapped up Primary Day with a small but noisy rally at Confucius Plaza in Chinatown. "I know there are a few voters who haven't come out yet," a hoarse Liu shouted to the crowd. "Let's go get them!" The crowd didn't move. "Let's go get those voters out there!" he shouted again. A man to his right relayed what he meant to the crowd, and they dispersed into the residential complex behind them.