Statistics Still Do Lie

Ferrer and Undecided lead muddled Democratic primary pack

The latest numbers in the headlined new public poll by Quinnipiac are an optical illusion. Since last Wednesday, the Big News this week was that the Democratic primary is tightening, with Gifford Miller and Anthony Weiner rising, Virginia Fields sliding, and front-runner Fernando Ferrer holding steady at 33 percent, still seven points shy of the 40 percent he will need to avoid a runoff. But the reason Miller and Weiner appeared to gain two and five points respectively between Quinnipiac's July and August polls is that the poll changed, not their popularity.

In July, Quinnipiac polled a sample of registered Democrats, as it has five other times in 2005. In August, it did two polls—another one of 1,601 registered Dems and, for the first time, a sample of a measly 489 Democrats likely to vote on September 13. If the media focused on the same poll of registrants they've been covering all year, we would've found out that Miller actually dropped five points, from 15 percent to his all-time low of 10, while Weiner remained at the 11 percent he's been at since January.

So when the press instead reported that Miller and Weiner had surged to 17- and 16-point highs, it was comparing incomparables. The two of them may have been getting those percentages among likely voters for months but no one was polling "likelies," much less pushing them, as they were pushed in this poll, to say which candidate they were "leaning toward." Likelies and leaners are a totally different universe than the registrants sampled in all the prior polls. This close to the primary, it makes sense for Quinnipiac to survey the leanings of likely voters, but with no comparative baseline from prior polls, both Quinnipiac and the media should have gone out of their way to make clear that the results don't signal candidate trends since July.

Miller: Dominates debates, subverts reforms
photo: Kate Englund
Miller: Dominates debates, subverts reforms

In fact, the registrant results, which are the only ones measurable over time, reveal that the Big Gainer in the last month was that very popular Democrat, Undecided. He had been stuck in place all year, hovering between 20 percent in February and 18 in both June and July. But all of a sudden, in August's poll of registrants, Undecided hit 29 percent, a stunning 11-point hike in a month. It's also 13 points higher than the 16 percent of likely voters who say they're undecided. It is the clearest statistical change since primary polling began this year.

Undecided has, after more than a half-year of savvy campaigning, actually tied Ferrer at the head of the Democratic pack. As quiet as it is kept, Ferrer fell four points between July and August among registered Dems, dropping to the same 29 percent as Undecided. Ferrer's support only looked unchanged because he got 33 percent among likely voters this time and 33 percent among registrants in July, but if Quinnipiac hadn't switched the polling pool, the Big Story last week would've been Ferrer's decline.

No one's benefited more, however, from these polling illusions than Fields. Her 17-point showing among likely voters in August still left her tied for second with Miller, a single point higher than in July. But among registered Dems, she plummeted to 13 percent, a full 10-point collapse since her high of 23 in May. Unlike the three others, she has been in consistent free fall the last four months.

What it all adds up to is that Democrats are running away from this primary field, with an additional 8 percent of registrants indicating that they won't vote or will vote for someone other than the Four Dems, a doubling of that rejection rate since March. What it also says is that we'll have to wait until the next round of polls, when we can compare one set of likelies and leaners with another, to see if any of the candidates is really gaining. Here are a few of the other secrets of Quinnipiac's poll:

Ferrer is actually more popular among whites now than he is among blacks, a shocking reversal of his 2001 performance. Only 21 percent of likely black voters view him favorably, while 34 percent of whites do. His 27 percent unfavorables among likely black voters is by far the highest of the four. Thirty percent of likely white voters, as opposed to 24 percent of blacks, say they will vote for him in the primary. Ferrer actually leads Miller and Weiner among white voters, while Fields trounces him with black voters, getting 37 percent. This contrasts with the July poll of registered Democrats, when Fields and Ferrer split the black vote almost evenly, 34 to 33 percent. While these are not comparables, the 9-point drop suggests that Ferrer's slide with the black base that supported him four years ago is continuing.

Black voters who are leaving Ferrer are not, however, going to Fields. While only 15 percent of black registrants pulled the lever for Undecided in July, 31 percent did in August, meaning that blacks, the key swing vote in November, are moving away from all of the Four Dems faster than anyone else (the white percent went from 22 to 29). Even within the much smaller pool of likely voters, blacks are more up in the air than whites, 21 to 14 percent, with only 10 percent of Hispanics undecided. In fact, the prototypical undecided yet likely voter is a black woman from Brooklyn and Queens. Only 2 percent of the Bronx's likely voters are undecided, compared to 21 percent of Queens'.


All of these disappearing Democrats, especially the disaffected blacks, are good news for Mike Bloomberg, though no one knows if these patterns will hold in November. Incredibly, 74 percent of blacks said that Mike Bloomberg "has strong leadership qualities," higher than Fields (62 percent) and Ferrer (53 percent), when Quinnipiac last posed the question in May. On the other hand, 49 percent of blacks answered "no" when asked if Bloomberg "cares about the needs and problems of people like you," while 28 percent said no about Ferrer. The general election may be a contest between these two assessments, with Bloomberg and his media allies resuscitating Ferrer's Diallo comments. Sixty-two percent of blacks say that Ferrer's statement made them "think less favorably about him" even though Ferrer was arrested at the 1999 protests while Bloomberg and Fields were M.I.A.

If the undecided pool of likely voters is correct—only 16 percent—Ferrer may well be headed for a runoff. He has to pick up almost one in two of the undecided likelies to reach 40 percent. But the other way to look at these numbers is that so many Democrats are turned off that Ferrer may get the magic number because his core vote alone, Latinos, is so turned on, giving him 40 percent of a much smaller total than usual. A runoff against Fields would be a disaster for Ferrer even though he would be almost certain to win it, because it would push even more blacks toward Bloomberg. A runoff against Miller or Weiner might solidify Ferrer's minority base and put a spotlight on him that would help in November. Of course, he could also lose a runoff to a white Democrat, as Mark Green proved. If either Weiner or Miller were to beat him in a runoff, minority turnout in November would plummet and Bloomberg would win a sizable part of it, repeating 2001.



Weiner: "New Dem" chases the Giuliani vote.
photo: Kate Englund
Behind the number is a primary trench war that is beginning to leave scars. Gifford Miller is winning the debates on issues of substance and record, the only one to spell out ways that Bloomberg has behaved like a Republican on municipal issues, making it clear, for example, that he will rescind the mayor's policy of holding back third-, fifth-, and seventh-graders. But his character gets in the way of his intellect and persuasiveness.

In the NY1 debate, the still-a-rich-kid-at-35 council speaker tried to wiggle defiantly away from a question about whether he'd send his children to public schools, calling it "ridiculous." He filibustered with lines like "my kids are too young," calling out for his wife, Pam, whining that he was being forced to determine where his four- and three-year-old would "spend the next 18 years of education before I have a chance to look at every school."

The Times subsequently reported that one child was already in a private preschool, Park Avenue Christian no less. Should Miller want him to transfer to public school for kindergarten, he would need a waiver that school officials said was never granted. As benignly as the Times recounted Miller's defense, it nonetheless unveiled a cornered Miller as a class-privilege counterpuncher unconcerned about fact. The picture the Times ran with the story showed little Addison putting his hand over his father's mouth in a posed family photo, but Addison was unfortunately not onstage when Miller launched his revisionist tirade.

Not to be outdone, Ferrer doctored his own family's education history. Apparently finding the contrast with Miller's bluster irresistible, Ferrer declared: "My daughter already did graduate from public schools, and she has two little sons who also go to public school." It turned out his daughter went to the same Catholic high school he did for four full years, Cardinal Spellman, an error that Ferrer's spokeswoman told the Voice was merely "a grammatical thing." She added that one of Ferrer's grandchildren was "too young to go to school," though another aide later said the second child would be going to preschool at P.S. 14 in the Bronx in September. The older grandchild, according to Ferrer aides, is already at P.S. 14.

But both candidates have character issues that go beyond their familial distortions. Jill Gardiner reported in The Sun on Friday that Miller is attempting a grotesque end run around the Campaign Finance Board's rules, part of a personal pattern of such abuse. He is well on his way to spending virtually all of the $7.5 million he's raised, unconstrained by the CFB's $5.7 million expenditure cap for the primary. He's doing it by classifying a record $1.2 million in expenses as exempt from the cap, 43 percent of all of the costs he reported up to August 8. These exempt expenses, which include whatever he spends on legal requirements like petitioning and preparing CFB submissions that comply with the law, are running at a rate five times the 7.5 percent baseline assumed by the CFB. He's already claimed a million more than Ferrer.

When Alan Hevesi ran for mayor in 2001, he pioneered the same gimmick and the CFB disallowed nearly $300,000 in exempt claims, but Miller is already nearly a half-million dollars ahead of Hevesi's phony submissions. In fact, since Miller is still circulating a petition to run on a second party line, the Small Class Size Party, he will undoubtedly be adding to his bogus total in the next CFB filing. Most of Miller's literature contains a reference to petitions, suggesting that he may have been claiming it as an exempt expenditure, a charge his spokesman did not respond to. Of course, $2.4 million of his campaign kitty is public funds, supplied by the CFB. That makes this abuse more than a breach of an expenditure limit; it's another example of Miller's self-serving raid on taxpayer funds. He's already been caught using $1.6 million in council funds to put photos of himself in mailboxes all across the city, a mass mailing abuse condemned by every editorial board.

Just as with the mailings, Miller's spokesman told the Voice before the Sun story appeared that his campaign had only claimed $500,000 to $600,000 in exempt expenditures. And just as with the ongoing sidestepping of CFB rules, Miller became speaker by creating a committee outside the public finance system he so often salutes, raising contributions that exceeded its limits.

Ferrer's character flaw is more par for the political course: He hypes, extrapolates, and repositions. His Diallo comments have been egregiously overplayed by the Bloomberg-backing tabloids, but he stumbled all over himself at the WCBS debate Sunday on late-term abortions, unable to explain how he could move from blasting the procedure as "barbaric" in 1997 to supporting it. Though this issue has dogged him for years, Ferrer abandoned his previous concession that "barbaric" was a "dumb" answer and trotted out a new explanation in the Sunday debate, claiming he was responding to a "politically charged" question. Changing both his position and his explanation compounds his problem.

Ferrer has also made the dropout and graduation rates his number one statistical critique of Bloomberg education policies, claiming the city "could only graduate 38 percent of schoolchildren on time" on Sunday, but he is gilding a lily. A 54 percent graduation rate, up three points since Bloomberg took office, is a ready-made target for Ferrer, so why does he have to make it worse than it is? Why is he still saying in every debate that the mayor has only produced 10,000 units of affordable housing when his actual and approved production—28,500—is demonstrably short of need and even of Bloomberg's promise?

Even Weiner, the bright new face who debuted on the citywide scene in this campaign, looked shallow on Sunday when he could not get specific about the cuts in waste he stresses so often as the engine that will finance the tax cuts he plans to do as mayor. Pressed about any reductions in pension benefits, even for new hires, he rejected it out of hand, saying that "money going to middle-class New Yorkers is money I want to go to them." If Weiner can't find waste in the fastest growing category of city costs—soaring from $1.3 billion when Bloomberg took office to $4.5 billion in the current fiscal year—he is wielding a very selective scalpel, protecting the same old special interests he rails against.

Weiner also went from being the only candidate at the NY1 debate to say Rudy Giuliani was a better mayor than Bloomberg to listing Bloomberg's top achievement on Sunday as "reducing racial tension in a post-Giuliani era." Weiner is targeting Giuliani and Koch Democrats in the outer boroughs—and 61 percent of those who favor him say they will vote for Bloomberg if he loses, far more than the supporters of any other Dem. His 40 percent property tax hike theme—even though it's been debunked by the Times—resonates among homeowners and, when rate and assessment increases are combined, it's accurate. Whoever wins in September is guaranteed to make it a part of their November message.

The best measure of the Fields campaign was her endorsement last week by the Citizens Union, a once-grand civic organization chaired now by a Bloomberg appointee. It endorsed Bloomberg in 2001 and is likely to do so again even though he is Public Enemy No. 1 of one of its pet causes, campaign finance reform. Strangely, the Times suggested Sunday that CU rejected Weiner because of his relatively mild apparent violations of CFB rules. Bloomberg L.P. contributed $5,000 to CU's coffers last year, Bloomberg was its dinner honoree in 1994, and its executive director couldn't think of "any proposal" Fields has made that "stood out," praising instead her ability to "get everyone involved." The CU's vacuous rationale for its endorsement of the vacuous Fields is the clearest indicator yet that Bloomberg is still hoping for a divisive Ferrer/ Fields runoff.


Research assistance: K. Emily Bond, Nicole D'Andrea, Bryan Farrell, Alex Gecan, Leslie Kaufmann, Ian Kriegish, and Stephen Stirling

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