The Underdog Race for New York City Mayor: Bill de Blasio


In 2013, New York City Democrats looked forward to electing one of their own to run the largest city in the country for the first time in 24 years. Only no one thought it would be Bill de Blasio. The Public Advocate managed just 7 percent in early public polling, well behind front-runner City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and 2009 nominee and former Comptroller Bill Thompson, and competitive with Treasurer John Liu. Moving from fourth to winning the primary without a runoff required a talented and driven candidate, a near-perfect campaign and a sophisticated understanding of the New York City electorate.

SITUATION

Early polling by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner suggested that this would not be a status-quo election. Most primary voters believed the city was headed in the right direction; though not without critics, incumbent Mayor Bloomberg enjoyed majority positive job ratings. Front-runner Christine Quinn posted a solid base among liberals, women, the LGBT community and voters in Manhattan.

But a closer look at the data showed something else. In many ways New York was thriving, but the tide did not lift all boats and the rising cost of living priced many middle and lower-income families out of the city. New Yorkers felt safe, but an aggressive police tactic, “Stop-and-Frisk,” allowed police to randomly stop innocents, alienating the NYPD from communities of color. A majority of Democratic primary voters wanted their new mayor to go in a different direction than Mayor Bloomberg.

SOLUTION

As a city council member and Public Advocate, Bill de Blasio had been a tireless critic of rising inequality and stop-and-frisk, which had topped 4 million stops since 2002. Moreover, he strongly opposed allowing Mayor Bloomberg to run for a third term in office. With this foundation, the campaign developed a narrative based on speaking out about inequality in New York City and developed the theme through a number of high-profile issues, not only reforming “Stop-and-Frisk,” but also increasing taxes on the wealthy to help fund pre-kindergarten and after school programs. These two issues largely defined this campaign.

But other elements proved critical to de Blasio’s rise in the polls and ultimate victory. Demographically, for example, New York, like the rest of America, is changing. The white, more conservative, outer borough voters who sustained Giuliani and Bloomberg for 24 years played a smaller role in this election's outcome. According to exit surveys, only 47 percent of primary voters in 2013 were white. De Blasio won 42 percent of the African American vote and 38 percent of the Latino vote, even with an African American candidate in the race.

The thrust of the advertising was personal, featuring Bill de Blasio’s 15-year-old son, Dante, explaining why his dad was the best candidate to lead New York City, outlining the core campaign themes of inequality and opposition to the stop-and-frisk policy. This personal approach suggested that Bill de Blasio understood the struggles of ordinary New Yorkers in contrast to the current billionaire mayor. While support had been building over the spring and summer, the “Dante” ad represented a turning point, as de Blasio communicated that he understood the problem of a young black kid being stopped by police just because of the color of his skin.

The de Blasio campaign never looked back from that moment. Even the much coveted New York Times endorsement of Christine Quinn did not slow de Blasio’s momentum. In the end, de Blasio avoided a run-off election by winning 40.3 percent of the vote on election night (just over the 40 percent required to win outright). Thompson earned 26 percent, while Quinn fell to third place with 16 percent of the vote. In the New York Times exit poll, he rolled up a 50 percent plurality among liberals. He beat Christine Quinn 39 to 16 percent among women and 47 to 34 percent among LGBT voters. He matched Bill Thompson in a 42 to 42 percent statistical dead heat among African American voters and carried the Hispanic vote by 11 points. And while putting income equality at the center of his message, he won every income group in this survey. In short, he united New York, no small feat in this city.

The general election campaign was never competitive. Republican Joe Lhota ran a dated campaign and, on Election Day, de Blasio won 73 percent of the vote to Lhota’s 24 percent, the highest vote share since Ed Koch in 1985 and the largest margin of victory for a non-incumbent in city history.

METHODOLOGY

Greenberg Quinlan Rosner played an integral role as part of the de Blasio campaign, conducting baseline polling and regular tracking for the Democratic primary and General Election, as well as focus groups, on-line ad testing and offering a full range of strategic research and advice for the campaign’s message, television advertising, and targeting.


Banner image from Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository