Why we already know that stop-and-frisk will be a big issue in 2013

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Blake Zeff

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One of the more telling findings about the upcoming New York mayoral race in a new Quinnipiac poll of city residents is buried deep within the survey.

It isn’t the fact that many months out, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn holds a commanding lead. While it’s nice to be ahead at any point (the poll shows Quinn the first choice of 32 percent, versus 10, 9, 5, and 4, respectively for Bill Thompson, Bill de Blasio, John Liu, and Scott Stringer) we are many forums, policy proposals, and poorly chosen words away from the actual primary. Whether the contest is held in June or September (which is still up in the air), that’s at least seven months of campaigning left. Lots can, and will, happen.

For example, in the town’s most recent hotly contested Democratic primary, the race for attorney general—which was statewide but targeted largely to city voters—the eventual winner, Eric Schneiderman, trailed by more than 20 points as late as mid-July. (Disclosure: I worked for Schneiderman as a media consultant during that race.)

Current public advocate Bill de Blasio won his come-from-behind primary against Mark Green in 2009 after polls showed him down by 24 with just a few weeks to go.

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Add to this the fact that the poll included Scott Stringer, who’s no longer even a candidate, and these results are feel-good fodder for Quinn, and fun morsels for the rest of us. But not much more at this early stage.

On that note, you can also downplay the impact of polls showing that Republicans like Joe Lhota and Adolfo Carrion trail the Democratic candidates by something approximating 45,000 percent (in this poll, it was a 51 point margin for both).

Anytime in 2012 that you ask a generic “Democrat or Republican” question to New Yorkers, the Democrat will win, hands down. And given how little they know about these candidates at the moment, that’s what this question amounts to. By contrast, ask them to vote for a mayor after a full season of campaigning, and they’ve pulled the lever for Republicans every time since 1989. It happens to be unlikely that a Republican will win this time without the resources of a Bloomberg, the reputation of a Giuliani, or external events that contributed to both of their first victories. But as mentioned above, we have a long way to go. Who knows what the city will look like a year from now.

Another new finding that you can take with some degree of wait-and-see is voters’ views of the current mayor. To his credit, a separate Quinnipiac poll from Tuesday shows Michael Bloomberg at his highest mark in two years, 56-34. However, on the heels of disasters, impressions of elected officials tend to inflate a bit (a trend that has similarly affected the approval of neighboring governor Chris Christie and President Obama).

In Bloomberg’s defense, there’s always the possibility that a natural disaster can negatively impact a leader’s approval ratings as a result of a poor response to it, something he learned the hard way after the blizzard of December, 2010. So he deserves credit. But we’ll really know more about voters’ perceptions of him after the post-blizzard sheen wears off a bit.

A more telling finding in the poll, in my view, regards police practices. New Yorkers strongly support the performance of police commissioner Ray Kelly (68-23) and that of the NYPD as a whole (62-31), but they sharply oppose stop-and-frisk tactics (by 53-42) that have mostly targeted black and Hispanic men. This dichotomy indicates that the disapproval of stop-and-frisk is not merely a proxy or byproduct of blind hatred toward (or even dissatisfaction with) the police department, but rather, a stand-alone concern about which there is very real discontent.

Dig deeper into the stop-and-frisk question, and the numbers are even more telling: Democrats oppose the practice by 62-33, black voters by 70-28, and Hispanic voters by 64-33.

Don’t think this has escaped the attention of the candidates and their campaigns. If you’re a Democrat running for mayor in 2013, this is an issue you must address if you want to connect with the base of your party.

New Yorkers have plenty of positive things to say about Michael Bloomberg’s tenure. Impressively, 57 percent think his health initiatives have either been right or have not gone "far enough.” Nearly two thirds are somewhat or very satisfied with the way things are going in the city today.

Stop-and-frisk is a glaring exception. I’d expect we’ll be hearing a lot about this from the candidates in 2013.