How could everyone have gotten it so wrong? Mayor Michael Bloomberg was supposed to win re-election big. He was supposed to waltz easily, effortlessly back into City Hall and begin his third term in January with a big fat mandate. Instead he beat City Comptroller William Thompson, hardly the strongest of candidates, by less than 5 percentage points. Why didn't the pollsters and the pundits and Bloomberg's own advisers get it right?
In a way they did. Bloomberg did have a healthy lead over Thompson. The story of the 2009 mayoral campaign in New York City is that the mayor's supporters did not come out to vote for him. Turning a deaf ear to Bloomberg's storied vote-pulling operation, to the robo-calls and the flyers and the leaflets, they stayed home.
The numbers tell it all. Thompson got just a few more votes than his fellow Democrat, Fernando Ferrer, did four years ago, when Bloomberg won election to his second term by nearly 20 percentage points. Ferrer drew 503,000 votes, while Thompson drew nearly 507,000. Bloomberg? 753,000 last time, 557,000 this time.
Hmmmm. There goes the mayor's justification for his over-the-top spending. He argued that he had to do it, that as an independent with Republican support running against a Democrat in a Democratic town, he was at a disadvantage. Yet Thompson did well in Democratic strongholds, but no better than Ferrer did. Bloomberg lost support, but that support does not seem to have gone to Thompson. It stayed home.
Tens of thousands of prospective Bloomberg voters just did not vote. Why? It's difficult to know; exit pollsters do not interview non-voters. But there are only two plausible possibilities for the depressed Bloomberg turnout: over-confidence or protest. And it was probably both. With most polls predicting he would win by double-digits, some of the mayor's supporters must have assumed he did not need their votes. Others clearly were turned off by his over-the-top spending, especially in a bad economy, and the mayor's self-interested push to change the term limits law.
Those who did vote registered clear concerns about the mayor tactics. Exit polls showed that 70 percent of the voters approved of the job the mayor is doing, but he got only 51 percent of the vote.
One voter put it this way when he called in to the Brian Lehrer show on WNYC after the election and said that he thought the incumbent was doing a "great job.'' He voted for Thompson anyway: "Bloomberg is preaching down from his pedestal,'' he said. Some of those interviewed at the polls echoed similar sentiments: "I feel he bought himself the election,'' said one Brooklyn resident, who also praised the mayor's record. Another complained that he was "egotistical.''
Bloomberg's high-priced consultants -- the guns-for-hire he relied on this time instead of the close advisers who were in charge during his first two campaigns -- didn't get it. And the mayor did not either as he authorized all the spending. Even after the polls closed, his spokeswoman assured interviewers that the campaign had spent only what it had to spend -- over $100 million of the mayor's own money. They will never be convinced that the spending may have backfired. "They had a tin ear,'' as one veteran Bloomberg associate put it. "People had hit their limit, but they just kept spending.
New Yorkers are pragmatic and realistic, as I noted just before the election. Only when pushed to the brink do they reject an incumbent and they did not reject this one. But they did send Mike Bloomberg a message. They do not like his high-handed ways, they do not like watching a negative campaign waged by a billionaire who outspent his opponent by 14 to 1. How delicious to contemplate what would have happened if Bloomberg had shown some self-discipline, if he had run a vastly less expensive campaign and given the public a glimpse of humility.
We will never know, but it is just possible that New Yorkers might have appreciated his restraint and returned him to office with the wide margin he so badly wanted that he set a new national spending record in its pursuit.