Waiting for the Bloomberg backlash (and waiting, and waiting)
You’ve probably heard it said, if you’re following the 2013 mayor’s race, that Michael Bloomberg is going to be a problem for Christine Quinn in the Democratic primary.
There's no clear evidence that that's true, though.
It's based on the notion that Democratic voters have become hostile to Bloomberg over the course of his controversially won third term, and that his ally, Quinn, will suffer for it.
But while Democrats may not love Bloomberg, they’ve given him high marks for job performance, helping him to win two re-election campaigns in a city in which they hold a 6-1 registration advantage.
Just last month, a Quinnipiac poll found a 60 percent job approval rating for the mayor among Democrats in the city, compared to 48 percent support among Republicans. Those findings track with Quinnipiac’s poll from a few months earlier, in November, which found 61 percent of Democrats approving of Bloomberg’s job performance, against only 39 percent of Republicans.
While those kinds of numbers among Democrats are close to historical highs for Bloomberg, they aren’t out of line with the rest of his tenure. In May of 2009, for example, he had a 58 percent approval rating among Democrats. Almost a year later, in April 2010, he was at 56 percent. As far back as June of 2005, when he was still getting through the poor approval ratings that marked much of his first term, a Marist poll found almost half of the city’s Democrats found his job performance to be excellent or good. And by the November general election that year, he was supported by almost 60 percent of Democrats.
The phenomenon of Bloomberg’s long-term strength among Democrats over the last 12 years was summed up nicely by a Marist poll released in August, 2005, just prior to the last competitive Democratic mayoral primary for Mayor. When Bloomberg was added to the field of Democrats and primary voters were asked their preference, he topped his nearest challenger by nearly 2-1.
There have certainly been moments when his popularity dipped among Democrats, for example when he tried to jam through the West Side Stadium, or during the Republican National Convention in New York in 2004, or after the Cathie Black debacle, but they’ve largely been just that, moments.
In large part this is because Bloomberg governs like a Democrat. He became a Republican in 2001 so he wouldn’t have to go through a Democratic primary, and then became an independent when he started trying to carve out a national niche for himself as someone who was above partisan politics altogether.
But in substantive terms he’s basically an activist-government liberal, leading nationally on gun control, pushing health initiatives in the face of industry resistance and championing the cause of same-sex marriage. His independence is less a function of any maverick philosophy than it is of his ability to operate without outside financial or organizational support. He is a progressive of means.
Bloomberg will be an important reference point in the primary and the general, but there's no magic to this election: it will be about the people who are running. Term-limited incumbents provide context. They are not the deciding factor.
Even the famously outsize Rudy Giuliani, before the attacks of Sept. 11, was a mere sidebar story in the 2001 mayor’s race, referred to by his would-be successors only when it came to the low crime rates they pledged to maintain and the abrasive style of leadership they promised to change. Bloomberg, tellingly, didn’t associate himself with Giuliani until after the transformative terrorist attack, after which he flooded the airwaves with an ad showing "America's mayor" embracing him on the steps of City Hall.
Bloomberg has dominated New York City politics for 12 years, and will be an ever-present part of this year's campaign narrative. And there’s certainly something to the idea that his friend Christine Quinn needs to establish, on some basic level, that she’s not his political dependent.
But the elements of a Democratic backlash against him, and his chosen successor, simply aren't there.
Steve Sigmund is a veteran Democratic operative who works for Global Strategy Group.