De Blasio's Long, and Lucky, Campaign

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Bill de Blasio and his wife Chirlane McCray on election night Nov. 5, 2013. Bill de Blasio and his wife Chirlane McCray on election night Nov. 5, 2013. (Stephen Nessen/WNYC)

Bill de Blasio will be the next mayor of New York, the Associated Press has called.

He wins with a mandate and praise for his skills as a political operator. He was right that voters were hungry for something different from Bloomberg, and he gave them a consistent message of change. But after a rough start to his campaign, de Blasio also benefitted from five lucky breaks.

After the lop-sided general election polls, it’s easy to forget that only twelve weeks ago, de Blasio looked like an unlikely winner.

“Look, this has been a really long road,” de Blasio said a week before Election Day. “I started out as the underdog for sure. I was the underdog for a long time, but once the momentum built, it’s never stopped.”

For many months, before de Blasio leapt to the front of the polls in mid-August, it looked like he couldn’t catch a break. De Blasio faced three major setbacks during the primary season.

Setback number one: One of his chief attacks against Chris Quinn got neutralized.

“People in this city know why we need paid sick days,” de Blasio declared at a press conference in January, days before he officially launched his campaign. He was joined by activists and frustrated council members who hammered Speaker Christine Quinn on bottling up the bill. “It’s astounding that after a thousand days we are still having to have these press conferences,” de Blasio said.

Then, city council made a deal on paid sick leave in March, and Quinn was the hero.

“If I miss anyone because there’s a big crowd, just holler,” Quinn said in front of cameras at City Hall, where she was surrounded as she announced the compromise plan. Tellingly, she was also joined by some labor leaders. 

That was setback number two: Big Labor wasn’t convinced de Blasio was their guy.

Despite his long ties to union, de Blasio got just one major endorsement in the primary, from health care workers. Christine Quinn got building and hotel workers. The coveted teacher’s union bet on Bill Thompson.

This was big trouble for Bill de Blasio, the conventional wisdom went. Unlike other candidates, labor was supposed to be his base. Christine Quinn had carved her ground as the establishment choice, with an appeal to history as the first woman and openly gay candidate. Bill Thompson, the only black candidate, was counting on a demographic advantage in a majority minority primary electorate.

Or maybe, without labor consensus, de Blasio could create a path to victory through the outer boroughs.  

But then, setback number three: Anthony Weiner.

When Weiner joined the race in May, his chutzpah and message – about those in the middle class and struggling to make it – crowded out de Blasio’s tale of two cities.

It was temporary.

“Umm, I have said that other texts and photos were likely to come out, and today they have,” Weiner told the world in July.  

Weiner's downfall was lucky break number one for de Blasio

But the impact of Weiner’s fall wasn’t immediately clear.“If you had asked me before the scandal yesterday who was in the runoff, I would’ve told you Quinn and Thompson, and if you asked me after the scandal today, the answer is Quinn and Thompson,” Bradley Tusk, Bloomberg’s 2009 campaign manager, said at the time.

That was before Dante.

“I want to tell you a little bit about Bill de Blasio,” de Blasio’s teenage son said in the now-famous television ad that started running the second week of August.  The ad, and Dante’s prominent afro, introduced New Yorkers to de Blasio as the candidate whose family looked like New York.

The decision to run the ad was strategically masterful.

And the timing was helped by lucky break number two: the leading Democrats had started to flounder.

Quinn couldn’t escape a trail of protesters or the lingering discontent about her support of Bloomberg’s third term.

“I would’ve been for Christine Quinn four years ago, but I can’t forgive her for the third term. I just can’t,” Yvonna Balfour, a 50-ish Chelsea resident who should have been a core Quinn supporter, said in August. She’d decided to go for de Blasio.  

And for Bill Thompson, next to de Blasio’s multi-racial family that was new on the scene, he looked stale.

“Bill Thompson, already had a try and he lost, so let me give somebody else a chance,” Deyon Roman, a Carribbean American voter in Crown Heights, said along the West Indian Day parade route over Labor Day weekend, where the entire de Blasio family was greeted as celebrities.

De Blasio’s momentum crested at just the right moment.

“The NYC Board of Elections says that with all precincts reporting, Bill de Blasio has 40.12 percent, a whisker above the forty-percent threshold needed to avoid a runoff,” WNYC’s Amy Eddings reported the day after the primary election.

Lucky break number three: No run-off, by a hair.

Thompson, Quinn, John Liu and the rest of the Democrats split just so – and De Blasio won the Democratic primary outright. Bill Thompson came in second, and after waiting a few days to watch decimal points and late vote counts, he conceded.

“There is nothing more beautiful than Democratic unity. And thank you for it,” de Blasio declared after Thompson dropped out.

De Blasio could avoid another bruising few weeks of campaigning within his party, and focus on his Republican opponent.

Lucky break number four: The billionaire in the mayoral debate. 

Not Michael Bloomberg, but John Catsimatidis.

The deep-pocketed businessman self-financed a series of attack ads against Lhota in the primary. One declared, “As MTA chairman, Joe Lhota raised subway fares and bridge tolls. John Catsimatidis will never do that.”

Lhota won the GOP primary, but lost the Republican stronghold of Staten Island to Catsimatidis.

After all those ads, in the first general election poll, more likely voters had an unfavorable view of Joe Lhota than favorable. More than a quarter of Republicans didn’t like him.

Joe Lhota tried to run as a manager who could be trusted, who was a different sort of Republican.

“Bill de Blasio is pro-choice. Joe Lhota is pro-choice,” said his first television ad. “Joe Lhota supports gay marriage. Bill de Blasio supports gay marriage.”

Lucky break number five: Lhota's bad timing. 

Their first debate coincided with the government shutdown and debt ceiling standoff in Washington. National opinions about the Republican Party were hitting historic lows, and de Blasio repeatedly linked his opponent to the federal impasse.

“The Republican Party has brought us right up to the brink of disaster, especially the Tea Party faction,” de Blasio said after the debate, in which he repeatedly mentioned Lhota’s primary visit with Tea Party supporters. “You’ll never see me in a room with Tea Party leaders”

There were still more fortuitous developments for de Blasio, including the Lhota campaign’s inconsistent attacks on de Blasio or the timing of federal court rulings on stop and frisk and campaign finance.

And in the end, the guy who at first looked pretty unlucky found a sweeping mandate for his sweeping message.  

Bill de Blasio correctly read the city’s latent Bloomberg fatigue. With his tale of two cities and call to tax the rich to pay for pre-K, he tapped New Yorkers’ longing to find a candidate who got their individual struggles.

But in the primary and the general, Bill de Blasio’s electoral fortunes were also lifted in ways that even the smartest tactician of New York politics couldn’t predict.


Andrea Bernstein


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Comments [15]

Lyonel Laverde-Hansen from Yorkville

Yes, luck always plays a factor in such matters, but don't understate the power of having a message and sticking to one's guns. Bill de Blasio's campaign realized that Blomberg fatigue was at an all-time high as well as the yawning gap of income inequality. And they kept hammering away at it. For example, the de Blasio campaign could have panicked after Speaker Quinn stole its thunder with the sick paid bill, but instead it read the correct message and realized it was on to something.

Another omnipresent, but little-mentioned factor, was the awareness of twenty years. That means that New York had not elected a Democrat (much less an open progrrssive) as mayor for longer than the de Blasio children have been alive! It was always strange that a city with an overwhelming Democratic majority couldn't elect one of its own for a generation, but it was proof that pragmatism had trumped ideology. Now there was a living, breathing progressive who has convinced the citizenry that he can make the trains run on time. May he be right, and bless our fair city.

Nov. 09 2013 01:55 PM
dan from brooklyn

"Then, city council made a deal on paid sick leave in March, and Quinn was the hero."

I think many people perceived the deal made by Quinn as an act motivated by political opportunism rather than principle, thus further hurting her candidacy.

"When Weiner joined the race in May, his chutzpah and message – about those in the middle class and struggling to make it – crowded out de Blasio’s tale of two cities"

Why did Weiner's message crowd out deBlasio's tale of two cities? This didn't just naturally happen. The media made a decision to devote an inordinate amount of attention to Weiner's candidacy -- at the expense of covering the other candidates, except Quinn.

I always felt that the media was trying to create a scenario where Quinn and Weiner would be the frontrunners, with Quinn ultimately winning the nomination. Throughout this campaign it appeared that the media was determined that Quinn was going to be the next mayor (or at least the democrat party nominee). It always amazed me that they could not see that she was never going to be elected. After her actions in 2009, it was not going to happen.

Nov. 06 2013 10:18 PM
Lee Gelber from Astoria

Anna Sale - call it a narrative, call it "news analysis" I just call it a superb piece of journalism.Tahnk you for your consistently intelligent, incisive work.

Nov. 06 2013 06:52 PM

BdB is the first mayor by-default.
What, about 15% of voters showed up at the poles?

2009 when everyone also assumed that one guy had a huge lead, more people when to the poles then.

Do the people of NY even want a mayor?

Nov. 06 2013 06:26 PM
LL from NYC

without LUCK nothing goes.
LUCK trumps all else.
everyone is a little superstitious b/c no one understands how luck works. Everything here could have easily gone another turn, but above all BDB, who is a smart and calculating politician, got very very lucky this election season.
I voted for him!

Nov. 06 2013 05:39 PM
William from Manhattan

Great reporting and programming throughout the campaign. This report by Anna Sale is the perfect wrap-up. For what it's worth, my opinion is I'm dubious about BdB's ability to run NYC. Say what you will about Bloomberg, he set a high bar for sheer competence in government. But I confess I'm inspired and encouraged by the mayor-elect's acceptance speech. Maybe BdB can be an effective progressive mayor. Again, I'm dubious, but I sincerely wish him the best. I was wrong about Bloomberg, too, the first time he ran.

Nov. 06 2013 04:39 PM
TOM from Brooklyn

Gee, I hope BdB was not just lucky but did make good calls during the campaign and will continue to do so during his tenure.
Of course, he missed some probing attention to his issues when the knuckleheads in the media were overwhelming us with Spitzer/Weiner distractions. Barring that they might have shelved Quinn early and concentrated on the tall guy in the back always arriving late so he could show off his height.

The greatest tragedy of this mess is we lost a good MTA boss.

Nov. 06 2013 04:20 PM
Michael from Williamsburg

Its ironic in a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans 6-1 We didn't have a Democrat Mayor for 20 years

Nov. 06 2013 10:48 AM

we dont really know what would be the actual policies of Deblasio administration, but if we take him at his word, he will discredit his economic mobility message by implementing his crime policies.

Nov. 06 2013 10:47 AM
Alexis from Flatbush

I just want to thank the caller who called out the man who did, in fact, refer to New Yorkers of color as being "colored". I'm shocked that everyone in the studio apparently misheard that call and there is no excuse for such loaded and derisive language that has not been acceptable for 50 or more years.

Nov. 06 2013 10:40 AM
Don M from Jersey City

I listened to this story, and think it's a brilliant analysis and summation of the De Blasio phenomenon. Kudos to Ms. Sale and her colleagues who put this story together.

Nov. 06 2013 10:07 AM
Leonore from Stuytown

I supported Thompson in the primary as the least divisive and best qualified candidate, but he was low key (that means least divisive to me) and the media saw him as stale.
I think this piece doesn't identify the role of the media enough in covering the exciting new guy, exciting because his family "looked like New York" (c'mon), a lucky break for sure. I also think Quinn could have gotten a second wind but she was pummeled in the press.
The campaign and coverage are not enough about the candidates' records; it's always about a few colorful details. Well, I wish De Blasio continuing lucky breaks and favorable coverage so we'll come together as a city behind him.

Nov. 06 2013 08:21 AM

Actually, SK, I think you missed a crucial point of Ms. Sale's article. When I read it, it seems that she is not saying that Mr. de Blasio won because he was lucky. Rather, he achieved a HUGE lop-sided victory because of other people making mistakes. She (rightly) notes all the canny decisions de Blasio made that contributed to his success: a consistent message for months, strategically employing ads at just the right time, deciding on a vision very different than Bloomberg's, and so on. I think her point is that after the Weiner meltdown (which opened the door for him), he would have won anyway, but the size of the victory came from luck.

And on your second point, I remember MANY news analysis pieces from 2008 talking about Obama's lucky breaks: the Clinton team failing to set up a good internet-based campaign site as they had planned, McCain choosing Palin which ultimately hurt him more than it helped, the financial meltdown in October 2008 which benefited Obama not McCain, among other things.

Nov. 06 2013 06:29 AM
sk Brooklyn from Brooklyn

Anna, generally I like your work, but I'm not sure I like this story. First, it relies solely on a narrative that you have created. Nothing is factually wrong, but it is selective. Generally, your work seems to be straight news, but this verges across the line, or blurs the line, between news and opinion. It should have some labeling that distinguishes it from straight news reporting. Doesn't the New York Times call this "News Analysis?" Also, you have not included any expert sources that might evaluate the narrative you have constructed and this is a weakness to the story. I realize its election night, and you were pressed to publish, but I think a story like this needs independent expert analysis from multiple sources. What bothers me personally is that de Blasio's success appears to be attributed solely to luck and the weaknesses of the other candidates. As a de Blasio supporter, I realize I might just be a little too sensitive. But every success in a political race would in part seem to rest on these two things (at least that's what Machiavelli claimed), and certainly they are an important factor in the results. But, are you saying de Blasio was a weak candidate? If so, is this just based on his poll numbers? One of the reasons I am skeptical is because I saw similar circumstances with Obama and Hillary. I don't remember anyone writing Obama was just lucky. I think there should be some consideration in this story on strengths of de Blasio, which with the luck and foibles of the other candidates created a successful campaign. In the future, I would love to see some stories comparing the two races - Obama 2008 and de Blasio 2013 by speaking to many political experts and historians. I also think within both parties, there has been a move away from "establishment" candidates, which I find both risky and exciting. We see this with the tea party and we saw this with Obama and de Blasio. This could be another future investigation. Thanks for all your great reporting.

Nov. 06 2013 01:56 AM
Gary from Greenwich Village

And let's not forget that the animal rights people got behind Bill De Blasio's run early on. Animal rights is to New York City what gun rights are to them fine folks in Hooterville.

Nov. 06 2013 12:28 AM

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