The Democratic primary race for New York City mayor has begun increasingly resembling, of all things, the 2012 Republican presidential primaries, featuring an unsettled and unenthusiastic electorate, a bevy of flawed candidates, and a new frontrunner seeming to emerge weekly. Ideologically, the Republican candidates in 2012 and the NYC Democrats are polar opposites. But the rising-and-falling pattern of the different contenders in both races reveals some similar dynamics.
The Mitt Romney of the race is NYC Council Speaker Christine Quinn. The establishment candidate and long the presumptive front-runner, Quinn has been enduring her own version of the “Anybody But Mitt” phenomenon. As with Romney, the major rap on Quinn is that she’s ranged so widely in her political stances – from street-protesting outsider to left-leaning Councilmember to perceived Bloomberg crony – that voters aren’t sure quite what she stands for. Like Romney, Quinn has held a core of support throughout the race but has been unable to expand it.
In recent polls, the momentum has been going to NYC Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, who is turning out to be the Rick Santorum of the race (though both men would abjure the comparison). Initially little-known and not terribly well-financed, both politicians are “true believers” and both prominently showcased their families as exemplars of their values. De Blasio’s commercials –featuring his African-American wife (who once prominently self-identified as lesbian) and a 15-year old son with an enormous Afro — underscore the social and ideological chasm between the candidate and Santorum. Yet, in the same way that Santorum had a late conservative-driven surge against Romney, de Blasio has lately emerged as the “authentic progressive” alternative to Quinn.
The candidate who originally seemed most likely to benefit from the “Anybody but Christine” sentiment was former two-term City Comptroller Bill Thompson, who narrowly lost to Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2009. As the vaguely familiar yet rather time-worn “establishment alternative” to Quinn, Thompson’s position in the race most resembles that of Newt Gingrich in 2012 (minus all the kooky pronouncements about moonbases and such). Thompson is polling a solid third, and remains a contender in what seems likely to be a fairly low-turnout election on September 10.
Of course, much of the media attention has been riveted on more colorful but marginal candidates. Anthony Weiner made a late entry into the mayoral race much as Rick Perry belatedly strode onto the presidential stage, wielding a huge campaign war chest and high name recognition. Weiner’s subsequent plummet, though, has more closely resembled that of Herman Cain, as he has been tripped up not only by sex scandals but also by increasing recognition of a thin political resume.
Most of the other candidates barely register in the polls. NYC Comptroller John Liu was once seen as a serious competitor, but has been hit with catastrophic charges of illegal campaign finance practices. Still, like the indefatigable if somewhat out-of-touch Michele Bachman, Liu remains sunny, upbeat, and odds-defyingly confident that he somehow can prevail. Former City Councilmember Sal Albanese, a worthy public servant, remains mired in the overlooked role played in 2012 by such sturdy but dull one-time officeholders as Tim Pawlenty and Jon Huntsman.
Although there is also an NYC mayoral primary on the Republican side, the competitors there have gained little traction. After 12 years of Michael Bloomberg and 8 years of Rudy Giuliani, another self-made billionaire (supermarket mogul John Catsimatidis) and Giuliani’s deputy mayor (über-manager Joe Lhota) have yet to stoke much enthusiasm. The NYC mayoralty seems all-but-certain to return to the Democratic fold this fall.
This means that the big event in the Big Apple will likely take place not on November 5, but during the October 1 runoff to be held if no single Democrat takes 40% in the September 10 primary. Those fans of “fantasy politics” who are still pondering the outcome of a head-to-head showdown between Romney and Santorum or between Romney and Gingrich (or even conceivably, between Gingrich and Santorum) just might get a little closure come October 1.