In Public Advocate Runoff, Candidates Battle To Get Out the Vote

Just 20 percent of registered voters cast their ballots in the primary earlier this month, and turnout for the runoff in the public advocate's race Oct. 1 is expected to be even lower. So the candidates are focusing their efforts on getting voters on their side and out the door.

It was a tight race between the two candidates on Sept. 10. James got 36 percent of the vote, and Squadron got 33 percent. But neither of them passed the 40 percent threshold needed to avoid a runoff. Now they're headed for a runoff that's estimated to cost $13 million, more than six times the budget of the office.

James is betting on women and workers. "When women vote, women win," she said to applause from the members of the National Organization for Women and Emily's List who had gathered to support her last week."We're building a coalition of women, with an emphasis on working class women and the challenges they face."

Squadron is reaching out to his constituents, people who are familiar with his record, and introducing himself to people he doesn't know. "I have a plan to really make a difference for people who need it. And in the State Senate I’ve passed gun laws, beat back the Bloomberg Administration on some terrible homeless policy. And I plan to do the same thing in the public advocate’s office," he said as he called supporters from his headquarters over the weekend.

As it turns out, there's something of an art and science to targeting voters in an election like this one. Former public advocate and mayoral candidate Mark Green, who has been part of runoffs before, including one against Bill de Blasio in 2009, said that turnout tends to be very low. Slightly more than 200,000 turned out in his 2009 runoff against de Blasio, and public advocate wasn't the only office on the ballot. "The turnout in a runoff election, down ballot —meaning not for mayor — has been and probably again this year will be 8, 9 percent," he said. "That's pathetic."

As a result, he said that some strategies, like TV ads, aren't very efficient. "If you go on television, 20 million people in the region will hear it. But only 200,000 "triple prime" New York City voters will be voting," he said. So he suggests lots of phone calls, direct mail and outreach to likely voters instead.

As for likely voters, political consultant Gerry O'Brien, who isn't working for Squadron or James, said they can be pinpointed, too. "The dirty little secret in politics, as well as in a lot of marketing these days, is databases. We still have a secret vote in this country...so we don't know who people voted for, but we do know every time someone votes." Those voting lists are public information, and there are companies that sort it and sell it to campaigns.

And yet, O'Brien says every election is different, and outside factors can influence the outcome. This year, he said, James might have an advantage because she's African American. "There may be a sense from some voters that having a black female in office would give some diversity because the mayor, the comptroller and possibly even the speaker of the city council are all going to be white males," he said.

On the other hand, Squadron could get a boost from the establishment endorsements of the New York Times and Senator Chuck Schumer. "It’s basically 10 days to the runoff. That’s a couple of eternities in a political campaign," he said.