The early returns are in, and New Yorkers are so keen on that old standby, None Of The Above, the latest Marist poll shows twice as many voters want disgraced pols Anthony Weiner and Eliot Spitzer to run for mayor in 2013 as back the early “frontrunner,” City Council Speaker Christine Quinn. She’d also trail 69-year-old Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, a Republican who has never said much about his political views, let alone run for office.
In the absence of a big-name Republican late arrival (a serious one, so pay no mind to your Baldwins and Trumps), the handful of voters who show up for the Democratic primary will decide our next mayor. That’s bad news for a city whose citizens have already disengaged from its political life.
With primary turnouts having plummeted over the past two decades even as the number of registered Democrats has soared, candidates are vying for the support of five percent of New Yorkers to land in Gracie Mansion.
In 1989, 49 percent of the city’s then 2.2 million Democrats voted in the primary, when David Dinkins ousted Mayor Ed Koch. Even as the number of registered Democrats has soared to over 3 million, primary turnout has collapsed. If just the 800,000 new Dems cast votes in 2013, it would be the biggest turnout since 1989. Candidates would be racing to collect 400,000 votes—in a city of more than 8 million.
Leaving aside 1997’s blowout race, turnout has also plunged in every citywide general election between 1993 (1.9 million) and 2009 (1.15 million)—a 50 percent drop in turnout, adjusting for population growth. About as many voters showed up for the 1989 primary, when only Democrats could vote, as for the 2009 general election.
The way the game is rigged, the 1.4 million voters who aren’t Democrats look to have no real say in picking the next mayor—while the Working Families Party, with just 13,000 members, is poised to play a decisive role thanks to New York’s arcane rules that let candidates run on multiple ballot lines.
The result: Politicians who answer only to the small swath of the city that shows up to elect them, which helps explain the stale field of Democratic city regulars whose main credential is having climbed the greasy pole.
While rhetoric among the likely candidates has so far revolved around the middle class and the outer boroughs, the early 2013 political operations have keyed in on old-school identity politics aimed at the crucial voting blocs needed to triumph in a relatively low-turnout primary.
It’s a big opportunity for the candidates veteran political consultant Hank Sheinkopf calls “Firsts”:
“In years when there are reapportionments and the first city election cycles after a census, especially after great shifts of population” like those the city has gone through over the past decade, said Sheinkopf, “there are always these first credible people [representing politically underrepresented groups] with higher probabilities of winning or getting into play.”
Quinn is the first female and openly gay Council speaker, and would be the first credible mayoral candidate from both groups. (No, Ruth Messinger, who barely skirted a runoff with Al Sharpton before falling by double digits to Giuliani in 1997, wasn’t a credible female mayoral candidate). Comptroller John Liu is the first citywide Asian-American office holder, and a proven draw to new Asian voters. Liu’s predecessor, Bill Thompson, was the first African-American comptroller, and would be just the second African-American mayor.
You could call this the Balkanization,or in a sense the Sharpton-ization, of New York politics.
Democratic party leaders have profited from the public’s apathy—as citizens stay home, the handful of votes they control or can pay to rent become that much more valuable—while the city’s Republican party has remained just a shell for rent to self-financing or famous candidates. The mayor, too, has sometimes discouraged New Yorkers from participating in its politics, by re-branding citizens as “customers” and in a 2009 campaign successfully predicated on discouraging New Yorkers from showing up to keep turnout low.
Bloomberg at one point tried to put an end to this mess, sinking $7.5 million of his own fortune into an effort to create nonpartisan elections. But that effort only ended up highlighting the problem: He put the measure on the ballot in 2003, when there were no citywide races and only a handful of competitive local ones. Despite polls showing a slim majority of New Yorkers supporting the measure, which was fiercely opposed by Democratic regulars and the WFP, it was defeated by an incredible 40-point margin. (Disclosure: My father, Fred Siegel, was a member of the Charter Reform Commission that offered the measure.)
With few other reasons to cast a vote, turnout was dominated by those with the most to lose if New York started giving more than lip service to participatory democracy. The will of the voters bore no evident relationship to the will of the city—a dynamic that could play out again in 2013.
Manhattan Media president and CEO Tom Allon, a political neophyte who’s launched an unlikely Democratic bid (one of his own papers deemed it “a vanity run”), is hoping to change that math by drawing in new voters.
“I believe in the intelligence of New York voters in mayoral races,” said Allon. “I don’t always agree with their decisions, but at least there are people who are paying attention, not just doing the party line.”
I hope he’s right; we’ll know soon enough.