When Eliot Spitzer steamrolled his way into the race for City Comptroller just two months ago, it looked like he was going to treat Scott Stringer like a speed bump on his road to political recovery. Instead, the campaign has turned into a street fight – with Spitzer going negative on Stringer this morning in a radio ad. What happened?
Spitzer may not have calculated how virtually the entire Democratic establishment -- which was never in love with him even at his peak – would quickly and loudly come out on in favor of Stringer. In addition, the city’s three major daily newspapers all piled on last month, forcefully endorsing the Manhattan Borough President in his campaign against the former Luv Guv. Meanwhile, Stringer assembled a campaign staff that has been aggressive in taking its swings at Spitzer while also pushing the candidate across the five boroughs. Stringer is also getting the help of the many enemies who Spitzer made while he was state Attorney General and governor. By entering the race so late, Spitzer is relying on a team of newbies who are learning as they go along.
In addition, Spitzer adopted an early Rose Garden strategy in the campaign, foregoing any major policy speeches and focusing instead on putting out clever 30-second TV spots crafted by Jimmy Siegel. Although the ads may have put Spitzer back into the popular consciousness, they have done little to impress the political intelligentsia. While Spitzer never really had a chance to win that group of eggheads back over, he may have alienated them even further by not even attempting to mouth policy pieties.
If you believe the polls in this race, there’s a real geographic and racial split between the supporters of the two candidates. African-American and non-Manhattan voters are skewing heavily toward Spitzer while Stringer is getting the support of white Manhattan liberals – the kind of people who usually vote in primaries more than any other group. Trying to energize the black vote, Spitzer today launched an ad on at least one radio station with a heavily African-American audience, attacking Stringer on term limits, an issue that Stringer had little direct say on since he never served in the City Council.
The polls have almost consistently shown Spitzer in the mid-40s to about 50 percent. While those numbers are typically good news for a candidate for an open seat, it’s a different story for Spitzer, a former governor who is well known by most New York voters. Usually, undecided voters tip toward the new candidate, who in this case is Stringer.
Making all of this trickier to predict is that this is a “downballot” race – the City Comptroller candidates are positioned below both the candidates for mayor and Public Advocate in the voting booth. That means there should be plenty of dropoff: people who forget to vote or don’t want to vote in this race. On the one hand, Spitzer is hoping that his name recognition will get voters who have paid little attention to this race to simply pull the lever for him. But Stringer is counting on voters who look hard at all of the races, the good-government types who even study arcane referenda that sometimes appear on the ballot.
The X factor in all of this is the mayor’s race – and the handful of City Council contests that might actually motivate people to vote in certain districts. Will supporters of Bill de Blasio trend toward Stringer? Will voters in Bill Thompson’s camp prefer Spitzer? While the average New Yorker might prefer Spitzer over Stringer, there are no average New Yorkers come Primary Day. Eliot Spitzer is learning this the hard way.