the thousand words....
First off. Give Delano credit where due. He pointed out early on that the media would feel obliged to report this election as a horse race despite no evidence that there really was one. I wonder how I got so cynical? It is important to note why Delano made that pseudo-prediction. It wasn’t that the Democrat always wins, it was that he sensed out on the street a general satisfaction with how things were going in the city. It’s an important point to understanding the results and the gap between the LR and MD supporters out there.
With MD getting 35% of the vote, the debates have already begun over what those results mean. Did Desantis do well or poorly. Is 35% high, low, and how does it reflect on LR who won with 63% of the vote. People want to say that MD did quite well compared to Weinroth’s showing just two years ago, but what does that mean. When all is said and done there is this little factor of a half million dollars that might have helped out a wee bit. If you are going to make comparisons you have to account for the huge disparity in $$ available to the two (and most previous) candidates. For a half $million or so in cash MD was able to generate 7 percentage points more support than Joe Weinroth did with virtually no cash, no support from within his party or otherwise, and just a few limited endorsements. Along with in-kind contributions, the marginal votes cost over a $hundred each. That’s not cheap as these things go.
A question that has to be asked: what would the result have been if Weinroth had half the cash Desantis spent for this election? How about if he had a quarter of that cash? Weinroth was barely able to keep the doors open due to a lack of funds and spent nothing on mass media. Even a token mailing or any radio/tv presence would have introduced him to enough voters and generate a few more percentage points in the election returns. You can be sure that there were people out there willing to vote for the Republican candidate, but had no idea there was anyone else on the ballot other than Bob O. going into the 2005 general election. Those people didn’t bother to show up as a result. Unlike this race, there was no message hitting the public about there being a contested race for mayor. In 2005 everyone was quite clear that Weinroth would lose, and lose big. Even Weinroth supporters who knew there was an election had no reason to show up at the polls and many probably didn’t. I would argue that if the media had portrayed the 2005 race as contested as they did this time around, or portrayed that this race would be a blowout as they did in 2005, the two results would have been a lot closer to each other. Even if only partially true, I could call that a Heisenberg effect.
Which leads to the question some don’t want to hear, but did Desantis do worse than Weinroth as a candidate? To borrow a phrase, the level of cognitive dissonance in this race was astronomical. It’s one thing to know you are an underdog, but so many people completely misunderstood the actual public sentiment out there that you have to believe that translated into misallocation of resources. What I noticed was that even the people who acknowledged MD would probably lose still really thought he would come in between 40-45% based on mostly “personal” polling. Those who really thought he was going to win are another case altogether. Consider that just half the straight ticket pullers from last year showed up this time compared to last year. And then imagine for the sake of argument that everything was the same, but that LR had provided just a bit less chalkboard material over the last few months. What would the results have been? Does MD personally get credit for any of those ABL votes people say were out there?
I’m sure there will be all sorts of other explanations on how this all happened… The mythical Democratic machine will be the number one reason suggested by all local pundits. It’s just too simplistic an explanation to explain anything. but it sure does sound good. To borrow another phrase, it comes under the category of contagious popular nonsense. If the Democratic machine could deliver votes in a mayoral race, Pete Flaherty would be just a footnote to history and Tom Flaherty could be in his 4th term as mayor. Pete Flaherty first ran against Judge Harry Kramer, who had the unanimous endorsement of the ACDC, yet still won the nomination. 4 years later, Richard Caliguiri actually won the ACDC endorsement over then incumbent mayor Flaherty, an amazing feat. Yet again Flaherty won over the party’s appointed candidate. As an independent himself, Caliguiri would win election as mayor against the Democratic party nominee (and political machine unto himself) Tom Foerster. In 1989, Tom Flaherty would be the ACDC endorsed candidate for mayor and would come in last, or near last, in the mayoral primary. Even the party-endorsed and incumbent Tom Murphy would barely hold off challenger Bob O. in 2001. Party imprimatur just didn’t guarantee much of anything. I would only pose one question for all those who will be convinced of this “machine” explanation. In this case, did the electorate follow where ACDC leadership pointed, or was it the other way around? Never confuse correlation with causality… or worse yet get the causality backwards.
So all of that begs the question of explaining the results. My own take is that you can explain the results as follows:
1) Nobody wins on their resume… ever. For everyone who trotted out MD’s resume as a reason to vote for him missed this point altogether and only hurt their cause with much of the public. People are looking for whether you will represent them and their ideals. I am reminded of a classic race in 1988 where New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg was running against a challenger hand picked from central casting to run against him. Pete Dawkins had about as picture perfect resume as you could create: polio survivor, West Point graduate, Rhodes Scholar, General in the Army, Veteran of course, war hero with a slew of medals to boot, successful business person and so on. He also just looked the part with all the charisma you would want. Frank Lautenberg might have come close to matching some of the business credentials but that was about it. There was pre-election polling that indicated a well positioned Republican could take the seat even. It was the national focus campaign of the cycle with lots of money thrown in on both sides. Dawkins the challenger had all the cash he needed to get before the public. In the end it just didn’t matter and Lautenberg won by a decent margin, would later retire but come back out of retirement.
2) Trust takes time to build. I really believe that the odd write-in way Desantis got on the ballot was someone’s bright idea of how to make it appear as if Desantis was ‘drafted’ by the people to run. Call me cynical, but I don’t believe that it was all as ad-hoc’ish as it appeared. All it really did was just shorten the time people had to get to know the candidate and build some basic trust over who he was. Few voters are willing to trust someone who appears to have come out of the blue. Forgoing the entire spring and all the free media that would have gone along with the regular primary nomination process hurt a lot.. and then it was not helped by the fairly slow start that some thought extended into the summer.
3) Be prepared. I really think the Desantis campaign was doomed when the City Paper asked MD if he wanted to explain his contribution to the Santorum campaign. The problem was not the contribution itself, but the complete lack of preparation for how to respond. It was a question that was obviously going to be asked. Given the things that politicians have been able to overcome, this could have been nothing if he had just had an answer. As CP tells it all MD did was “shake his head” when asked about that particular donation. Either the preparation for that interview was non-existent or what I suspect, there was this deep denial that the media would bother to ask anything other than softball questions. The CP gave MD the perfect early opportunity to inoculate his campaign from the potential negative spin that would inevitably come, but he chose to say… nothing?
4) Don’t insult the voters. Seems simple enough advice, yet I’ve never seen it so thoroughly ignored. Someone has to say this and I honestly don’t believe it came from the top, but MD supporters typically tried to argue with people that only “dumb yinzers” would not be voting for their candidate. It’s just a silly tactic that in the end alienates the people you are trying to convince to support you. Like I said, I really don’t think it came from Mark or his top advisors, but they certainly didn’t do much to rein it in either. It was obvious not only online, but in what I am told were typical doorknocking conversations. One person told me of their experience with a MD doorknocker. They were actually open to the prospect of voting for MD at one point… but the argument they heard was that MD needed support to balance all the “dumb yinzers” from elsewhere in the city who would be voting for LR because they “don’t think”. That doorknocker probably walked away thinking they had convinced a voter to support MD, when they had really lost a household of voters. When I first heard stories like this cynical me was convinced that there were LR supporters out there trying to poison the well, but it was such a consistent theme that I doubt any extra help at that type of self-destruction was needed.
What does it all mean? I take MD at his word that he wanted to impact the future of the city and region. I am quite sure he did. The one clear result of all of this is that LR comes out of this race a much stronger candidate than he went into it. He gains a legitimacy of having won a contested election which he could not have generated on his own. Why did LR not do TV? As Bill Green has been explaining, he could have pushed the results above the 63%. But they needed this to appear to be a contested race. If this was even more of a blowout (and yes, in a general election a 27 point margin counts as a blowout no matter the history) it would be that much easier to discount. Compared to where he would be if this race had not happened, I think most would agree is in a much stronger position looking to the 2009 election season. Remember when people wanted there to be a off-year election despite the opinion from the city solicitor that the interim term should last until 2010. People got the election they demanded, though I still suspect that a legal challenge could have blocked this race from ever happening in the first place. Then remember when Bill P. argued for a primary race that had just him head to head with LR so as to not have his support diluted among other east end candidates. He also got exactly what he wished for.
Be careful what you wish for.
break. check fire. incoming.