The Bloomberg Blowout That Wasn't

History's richest campaign wins by a nose

A lot of New Yorkers were still scratching their heads about last week's election results when the mayor's campaign brain trust arrived at the NY1 TV studios the day after the vote to talk about the fine job they'd done. Their candidate, a popular two-term incumbent, had just spent somewhere north of $90 million on his re-election—the most by any local politician in history.

The net result? Nearly 200,000 fewer votes than Mike Bloomberg got the last time he ran.

This impressive shortfall was achieved even though they were up against a candidate who only got pulses racing by shouting, "Eight is enough!" Outgoing city comptroller Bill Thompson's only clear vision of where he wanted to lead the city was that it wasn't where Bloomberg was taking it. Whatever his message, Thompson was sadly outgunned in media buys: 14 Bloomberg bucks were spent for every dollar the comptroller scraped together. Despite those handicaps, the Democrat came in nipping at the mayor's heels, less than 5 percent behind the mighty billionaire. This was after every poll—including the mayor's own internal surveys—had Thompson running behind by double digits, from 12 to 18 percent.

Given those facts, you might have expected Team Bloomberg to take their seats at the table with host Michael Scotto looking a little spooked by the near-fatal miss they'd just had on the election highway. If so, this shows you are woefully out of touch with the current craft of bully politics as practiced by modern campaign professionals. Humility is treason, punishable by death or lack of political clients, which is the same thing.

Bloomberg campaign manager Bradley Tusk, communications chief Howard Wolfson, and field director Maura Keaney were as smug and satisfied as if they had just brought an underfunded long shot across the finish line in first place.

"One of the great things about this campaign and our success was making sure that we had a comfortable lead and margin throughout," said Tusk.

High fives all around! We spent the annual budget of a Caribbean nation and managed to barely beat a campaign that never even got to first base!

Tusk's last candidate was a politician named Blagojevich in Illinois who is now hoping not to spend the remainder of his second term in the Leavenworth federal penitentiary. For his Bloomberg work, Tusk has so far been paid $247,000. Another couple of paychecks are due, plus a likely bonus (Bloomberg's last manager, Kevin Sheekey, got a $400,000 reward, plus a $200,000-a-year post on the public's dime as a deputy mayor). Wolfson's firm booked a whopping $440,000; Keaney clocked in at $136,000.

What the Bloomberg Three accomplished for this big money was to barely tread water for six months. The first Marist Institute poll back in May had the mayor at 51 percent and the comptroller at 33. At that point, Bloomberg had already doled out $19 million, more than double Thompson's entire campaign purse. Fast-forward to election night: Bloomberg came in at the same 51 percent; Thompson hiked his tally to 46 percent of the vote.

The way this breaks down when data-driven executives like Bloomberg start crunching the numbers is this: The additional $71 million he spent in the six months between May and November produced absolutely nothing, other than a 13 percent boost for his opponent.

Tusk and company naturally scoff at such math. It is the old way of thinking, they say. It completely ignores the vicious anti-incumbent riptide that was surging through the electorate this year. Just look at what happened to poor Jon Corzine, a fellow billionaire, across the river in New Jersey. That was the Bloomberg Three's mantra: Voters were mad as hell this year, and we alone bucked the tide.

This is another silly fiction adopted at the last minute by people who lack all class. In Corzine's case, the soon-to-be ex-governor was wildly unpopular, and was always viewed as a tough bet. Bloomberg boasted approval ratings that hovered around 60 percent. Corzine fought back to within striking distance, falling just short at the polls; New York's billionaire squandered a nearly 20 point lead.

But enough already about these sore winners. The real debate is taking place on the other side of the fence, where Democrats are still kicking themselves and each other about what might have been. The suspect most frequently cited is Barack Obama, who couldn't even bring himself to do a quick arm-around photo-op with Thompson. Whatever the thinking in the White House, this doesn't say much for party loyalty. But the bigger culprit is even closer to home. The state Democratic Party, under the control of Governor David Paterson, was also AWOL.

"They were totally silent," said Stu Appelbaum, the leader of the retail workers union and one of Thompson's most active supporters. At one point, Appelbaum offered to pick up the cost of a Wolfson-style attack dog for the Democrats to deploy as a counter to Bloomberg's anti-Thompson onslaught. Party officials shrugged.

"This was the biggest, most significant race in the state, and they were missing in action," said Appelbaum. "They should've been out there, revving people up to participate. They could have been involved in fundraising. They did nothing."

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