When the candidates are polling this poorly and closely to each other, anything can happen
The New York City mayoral race is a zoo, and we’re all witnesses to it. Over the past two months, I said Anthony Weiner was stronger than initial polling suggested, Christine Quinn might not make the runoff (held if no candidate reaches 40% in the first round) and Bill Thompson probably would end up in the second round. The polling that came out this week makes me doubt none of these beliefs, yet the race remains very unsettled.
This week Marist and Quinnipiac released polls with slightly different, though, mostly consistent results. Marist had Weiner at 25%, Quinn at 20%, Thompson at 13%, Bill de Blasio at 10% and John Liu at 8%. Quinnipiac put Quinn at 19%, Weiner at 17%, Thompson at 16%, de Blasio at 10% and Liu at 7%. You’ll note that both surveys paint Quinn, Thompson, de blasio and Liu in nearly the same place and any differences are within the margin of error. Weiner’s higher percentage in the Marist poll may, as Mark Blumenthal noted on Wednesday, be because he’s in the news a lot and is benefitting from Marist pushing undecideds harder.
That should not be mistaken for Quinn having any sort of strong support. The Marist poll finds that among those who strongly support a candidate Weiner’s lead over Quinn’s extends to 17pt – 40% to 23%. Quinnipiac has her unfavorable rating among Democrats climbing to 31% – 12pt higher than in May and by far her highest of the year. What is going on?
While many analysts were stuck claiming that Weiner was a product of name recognition, they failed to recognize the same and perhaps to a greater extent was true of Quinn. I wrote in March that Quinn didn’t have a record that some Democrats would like once they got to know it. Anti-Quinn advertisements have been running in New York, and they clearly have had an effect.
Quinn had also been polling particularly strongly among African-Americans and Latinos in prior Marist surveys, which didn’t make much sense. Quinn is seen as a kind of heir apparent to Mayor Michael Bloomberg who polls worst among minorities. The latest Marist poll has her falling back to third among blacks at 19% and second among Latinos at 16%. Those numbers may fall further.
Weiner, meanwhile, has seen his numbers climb. In the ballot test, he’s at his high point in both the Marist and Quinnpiac polls. He’s cut his deficit in a potential runoff against Quinn from 15pt down to 2pt per Marist. Marist has his net favorable among Democrats rising from 0 to +16pt in the last month alone, while Quinnpiac show the percentage of Democrats thinking he should run for mayor up to 52% from 41% last month.
It’s easy to say that Weiner’s rise is because more people are hearing his name, but I don’t think that’s necessarily true. Weiner’s rise in the last month has occurred, despite the percentage having an opinion of him staying the same. That means he’s changing minds like I suggested he might in April. This transformation has occurred even as a number of stories hit the press about Weiner’s lack of a solid congressional record, past racially tinged campaigns, and of the damage his sexual escapades had on the women he had conversations with.
The biggest story, however, from the polling is the predictable rise of Bill Thompson. It’s been my contention since day one that Thompson, an African-American, would pick up the lion share of votes from African-Americans, who will make up about 30% of the electorate. That would put him in prime contention for a runoff spot that will probably be earned with just a little greater than 20% of the vote. Both the Marist and Quinnipiac polls have Thompson rising from the mid teens to 21% among African-Americans in the past month. That should go up even more.
The underlying voter sentiment gives Thompson even more hope. Thompson has the best net favorables in both the Marist and Quinnipiac polls of any of candidate among all Democratic voters – including whites. We can see this at work in potential runoffs, which he is in statistical dead-heats with Quinn and Weiner per Marist, even as Marist has him trailing both of them in the initial round.
Thompson may also benefit from the fact that pollsters in New York City seem to have a difficult time surveying minority candidates and voters. The leading minority candidate has over-performed his final polling significantly in every Democratic primary since 1989. Pollsters underestimated the percentage of minority voters going for the minority candidate in the past two general elections – including Thompson in 2009.
At the end of the day, though, any of the top three candidates can advance. I went through the polling that I could find since 1989, and I can’t find a single poll this late in the mayoral primary campaign when the leading candidate had less than 26% and certainly not less than 20%. There simply is no precedence for this in the past 30 years.
Indeed, the only race I can ever remember that shares the slightest resemblance to this one is 1977. That race featured Democrats Bella Abzug, Herman Badillo, Abe Beame, Mario Cuomo, Ed Koch and Percy Sutton. Abzug was thought of as a favorite with Beame close behind. Polling in that race had Abzug leading with right around 20% until mid-August. Then Koch “surged” forward to win the first round with less than 20% with Cuomo close behind, while none of the six earned less than 10%.
The lesson from that campaign that should be applied to this one is that when the candidates are polling so poorly and close to each other anything can happen. I wouldn’t even count out Bill de Blasio who is lurking with 10%. If you buy the Quinnipiac poll, he’s less than 10pt back. With two months to go and most voters not tuned into the race yet, it could be 1977 with someone we wouldn’t think of coming from behind. I don’t expect it, but in this race expect the unexpected.