For once, the pollsters are stumped. They have no idea who will win today’s New York City run-off elections, which will essentially decide the races for city comptroller and public advocate. Turnout will be so low, they say, that their phone surveys-which show John Liu leading David Yassky by a few percentage points in the comptroller contest, and Bill de Blasio and Mark Green in a dead heat for public advocate-can’t predict the results.Experts say the winners will be determined not by how people vote, but by which people vote.
“Turnout is going to be very low, so the premium is on organization, endorsements, and the ability of each side to get a few votes out,” said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist College Poll. “It’s not an easy sell when you don’t have a marquee race like for mayor. These are lesser-known offices and not marquee names.”
Both comptroller candidates and de Blasio are City Council members who forsook re-election campaigns to instead seek higher office. Green was public advocate from 1994 through 2001 and is trying to return to that post, which he left because of term limits. Because the city’s electorate is solidly Democratic and the Republicans are not fielding strong candidates in either race, the run-off will determine who assumes the seats in January.
If Liu wins, he will become the highest-ranking Asian-American elected official east of the West Coast. His candidacy drew a large turnout of Asian-American voters in the Democratic primary, but he would not have finished first without strong support from other minority voters. Black and Latino voters who came to the polls on Sept. 15 to vote for a City Council candidate or for mayoral candidate William Thompson also cast votes for Liu, who was allied with those candidates.
Yassky, meanwhile, benefited from enhanced turnout in Manhattan for a contested primary for district attorney. Voters from the borough are largely white, liberal and Jewish, like Yassky.
For both candidates, the run-off presents a different set of circumstances.
“Asians who came out to vote for Liu are going to come out [again today], but what about everyone else? There are no black or Hispanic candidates,” noted Jerry Skurnik, a partner in political consulting firm Prime NY. “Can his organization, the Working Families Party, the unions and political clubs supporting him pull out those votes again?”
Yassky, of Brooklyn, has less institutional support than Liu and is relying more on individually motivated voters who share his politics and demographics. “For Yassky, will white Jewish liberals come out to vote again without [the draw of] a Manhattan district attorney race, or a mayoral race?
To some extent, the same calculus applies in the public advocate run-off. de Blasio, of Brooklyn, has many of the same institutional supporters as Liu, while Green’s voters are similar to Yassky’s. The major difference is that MrGreen has a longer history in city politics than Yassky and is better-known to voters. Yassky relies more on his campaign organization that Green does.
“I don’t think anyone has any real idea what the turnout’s going to be, and what the ethnic and gender and geographic breakdown’s going to be,” said Skurnik.
The turnout percentage citywide barely cracked double figures on Sept. 15 and it could drop into single digits on today. “It’s a sleeper runoff,” Miringoff said. “You’re talking about hard-core Democrats voting at this point.”
The winner, he joked, could come down to this: “Who has the largest family of all the candidates?”
The comptroller candidates are seeking the seat held for the last eight years by Thompson, while the public advocate hopefuls are trying to succeed Betsy Gotbaum. Thompson and Gotbaum decided not to run for a third and final term.
Both offices serve as a check on the mayor, and while the public advocate is second in line to the mayoralty, the comptroller commands a far larger staff and has vast responsibilities to watch over the city’s finances and public pension funds. The public advocate is an ombudsman of sorts, can introduce bills and presides over City Council meetings, but can only vote to break ties in the council.