Big de Blasio lead over GOP's Lhota in NYC: Anomaly or return to normal?

After Republicans won New York's last five mayoral elections, Bill de Blasio's big lead over Joe Lhota seems surprising. But absent a crisis or an outsized personality, it's hard for a Republican to woo majority Democrats, analysts say.

Seth Wenig/AP
Democratic New York City mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio campaigns at a subway stop in New York, Monday, Nov. 4, 2013.
Seth Wenig/AP
New York City mayoral candidate Joe Lhota greets pedestrians in New York, Monday, Nov. 4, 2013.

For five consecutive elections, the Republican candidate for mayor in New York City has found the path to victory – even though there has long been about six registered Democrats here for every one of their GOP counterparts.

Indeed, it’s been nearly a generation since a Democrat has steered the policies of the nation’s largest city. And 24 years after the last Democratic triumph, the economy is generally strong, crime remains at record lows, and there has been relatively little social or racial unrest simmering within the city’s boroughs.

Yet just a day before voters head to the polls, the campaign of this election’s Republican, Joe Lhota, a trusted deputy of former mayor Rudolph Giuliani and former head of the city's mass transit system, has drawn a collective yawn from New York voters.

Mr. Lhota trails the Democrat Bill de Blasio, the city’s Public Advocate, by a whopping 40 points in nearly every poll – including Monday’s NBC 4 New York/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll, in which Lhota garners only 24 percent of likely voters compared with Mr. de Blasio’s 65 percent.

So what’s going on? Why do New Yorkers seem to be so willing to ignore the Republican candidate who has been urging them to maintain the status quo?

Even more, as some observers have wondered, how has the outspoken liberal de Blasio, who has staked his campaign upon promises to raise taxes on the wealthy and provide more services for the poor, been able not simply to lead, but to utterly crush Lhota in the polls?

Tuesday’s results could prove otherwise, of course, but even a mere 20-point de Blasio win would seem to represent a stunning climate change in New York City politics. Or would it?

“What makes this election seem so unusual, really, is the fact that the last six elections were actually unusual,” says Kenneth Sherrill, professor emeritus of political science at Hunter College in New York. “This election is normal, even if ‘normal’ is rare.”

Professor Sherrill refers to a basic statistical model used in political science, in which party identification and party loyalty are by far the most useful long-term predictors in any given election. But in the short term, pressing crises or the personal appeal of a particular candidate can disrupt this “normal” vote.

“You can measure the impact of the candidates and the issues by the way things deviate from the statistical ‘normal vote,’ ” says Sherrill. “In fact, normal elections hardly ever happen.”

So, though it seems counterintuitive, the very social and financial stability of the city, which Lhota has vowed to maintain, would appear to have worked against the candidate. In the absence of a crisis – or a candidate with magnetic personal appeal – voters usual vote according to their party affiliation.

“We tend to look back at the last couple decades, and see Republican mayors, or independent mayors, and think it’s easier for them to win in this city than it actually is,” says Jeanne Zaino, professor of political campaign management at New York University’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies. (Mayor Michael Bloomberg left the Republican Party in 2007 and became an independent during his second term, but still appeared on the ballot as a Republican when he won a third term in 2009.)

When former Mayor David Dinkins lost to Mr. Giuliani in 1993, cities across the nation were struggling with a crack epidemic that brought record levels of crime, and high-profile racial clashes were tearing at the fabric of the city's neighborhoods. Then came 9/11, which has only now begun to recede from the forefront of the city's consciousness.

And both Giuliani and Bloomberg had the kind of outsized personalities that drew voters in: one was a pugnacious and hard-driving prosecutor that New Yorkers generally trusted to get the city out of decades of urban decline, the other was one of the world’s richest men who tried to transcend party labels and run the city like an efficient multi-national corporation.

But New Yorkers seem to be saying to Lhota, you’re no Giuliani or Bloomberg.

Take away the Giuliani and Bloomberg years, in fact, and a Republican hasn’t gotten even a third of the New York City vote since 1961. In 1977, the Republican candidate, Roy Goodman, got only 4 percent of the vote, pulling 52,000 votes to the victorious Ed Koch’s nearly 600,000. (Mario Cuomo also received 500,000 votes running on the Liberal Party line after losing to Koch in the Democratic primary.)

 So the past five elections for mayor were in many ways Republican anomalies. And though he is respected as a solid and knowledgeable bureaucratic manager without an ideological edge, few have been energized by the prospect of a Lhota administration.

“For better or for worse, Lhota is a relatively calm, sane, and not-frighteningly-rich person,” says Sherrill. “So, he’s doing what you’d expect from a Republican candidate in New York City, which is to lose.”

Indeed, in state-wide and national elections, Democrats in New York City have continued to crush Republicans by three to one margins, even while reelecting Republican mayors.

“Obviously, in a six-to-one Democratic city, if you’re a Republican running, you really do need to give people a reason to look at you and to switch parties, whether they’re on the independent line or on the Republican line,” says NYU’s Professor Zaino.

“I think it’s fair to say that Lhota hasn’t done that,” she continues. “He hasn’t given either Republicans a reason to be really enthusiastic or Democrats or independents a reason to move over. I think the numbers were always working against him.”

But what about the dramatic turn to de Blasio, the most outspoken liberal the city has seen in decades?

“Ask yourself this question: Is he to the left of [other Democratic mayoral candidates] in previous elections?” says Sherrill. “They lost because they were running against very charismatic Republican candidates in very difficult times. De Blasio isn’t.”

“And I think what’s different about de Blasio – and this is partly related to the nature of the primary this year – is that he’s more open about his liberalism,” he continues. “Whereas [previous Democratic nominees], I think, toned themselves down. But in fact, de Blasio, too, has been toning himself down compared to the primary.”

But in the end, Lhota’s personal style and campaign themes could never overcome the normal inclinations of New York’s overwhelmingly Democratic electorate.

 “There was no vision, there was no idea in Lhota’s campaign,” says Zaino. “And with de Blasio, you have all that. And so it was a much more forward-looking campaign, and you look at Lhota’s and it was, ‘I’m going to maintain the status quo,’ and that is just not going to attract people from the Democratic to the Republican line.”

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