Why was the press late on de Blasio? One answer: He was not a ‘white’ candidate

De Blasio and his wife at the West Indian Day Parade. (Public Advocate Bill de Blasio)
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Peter Sterne

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Speaking on a panel of political journalists and consultants at the CUNY journalism school on Tuesday night, NY1's Errol Louis suggested that the media initially dismissed Bill de Blasio's mayoral campaign because they underestimated his support among black voters.

The press, he said, assumed that Bill Thompson would get a majority of the black vote and saw de Blasio as an outerborough white ethnic candidate, in the mold of Ed Koch or Anthony Weiner. But that's not how the voters saw de Blasio.

"It turned out he was a black candidate, in terms of voting," Louis said.

"People identified with the wife, people identified with the daughter, people identified with the son, people identified with the family as a whole," he told Capital after the panel.

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"To the extent that people identify with a candidate, and that's what a lot of ethnic voting patterns really reflect, it wasn't clear whether people would look at him and say, this is a white candidate, or whether because he's in this multiracial family, they would say, this is not a white candidate of the kind that we've traditionally seen," he added.

"I can tell you for sure, the Thompson people were very surprised by that," Louis said. "They thought, for sure, [Thompson] was going to have black votes up in the range of 60 plus percent, the way he did four years ago. It just didn't pan out."

Instead, de Blasio won a majority of the black vote, even on Thompson's home turf.

"Looking at the map, where de Blasio won election districts, it includes parts of Central Brooklyn where Bill Thompson built his career, where his father had built his career," Louis said. "I mean, two generations of Bill Thompsons in this area, and here's this guy de Blasio picking up all the votes."

The panel—consisting of Louis, the Times's Kate Taylor, POLITICO's Maggie Haberman, WNYC's Brian Lehrer, the Daily News's Joel Siegel, and veteran political consultants Stu Loeser and Scott Levenson—had gathered at CUNY to assess the media's coverage of the election. One problem that all the panelists identified was the media's over-reliance on public polls.

"Polling is something that we in the media always get wrong," Haberman said.

The problem, she explained, is that public polls are not very accurate, especially early in the race, because they rely on a random sample of respondents. The campaigns' internal polling is based on sophisticated likely voter models and is therefore far more accurate.

The political consultant Levenson had an especially low view of public polls.

"They're done for the press, not to find out what's really going on," he said.

But polls are inevitable, and none of the panelists could not think of a solution to the problems they present. The campaigns will not share internal polls with the press, so public polls remain the only ones available to political reporters.

The panelists also seemed to agree that the media's dismissal of de Blasio's candidacy has resulted in a deficit of public understanding about what a de Blasio administration might be like.

"De Blasio is coming in as one of the least-scrutinized mayors in history," Haberman said.

She didn't mean that de Blasio wasn't sufficiently "vetted," a term she said she dislikes. Towards the end of the campaign, reporters dug deep into his background to look for scandals. But the scrutiny the early front-runners faced on policy matters was much deeper and took up much more time than the press was able to spend on de Blasio late in the campaign.

Taylor offered one example: "How de Blasio is going to do on budget issues, we just don't know."

It's also unclear what role his wife, Chirlane McCray, will have in his administration—and how the media should cover her, given that a candidate's family is traditionally off-limits to the press.

"McCray helped vet everyone who's going to be on the transition team," Louis noted. "So let's go back and look at her client list."