Bloomberg Blames Narrow Win On National Backlash

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg called his narrow third-term election victory part of a national backlash against incumbents. Pointing to other results across the country, Bloomberg said voters were angry about the economy.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE MORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

In politics, there's usually no such thing as having too much money, but last night's election for mayor of New York has made people wonder. When all the bills are rung up, Michael Bloomberg will likely have spent more than $100 million on his re-election. For all that money, he won by a pretty small margin.

NPR's Robert Smith explores whether big spending could have turned voters off.

ROBERT SMITH: Mayor Michael Bloomberg's victory party was a good metaphor for his entire campaign. It was lavish, meticulously planned and trying desperately to relate to average New Yorkers. The bash featured street food - hot dogs, pretzels, sliders - served by waiters in tuxes. Even when Bloomberg eked out a narrow victory, he never referenced how close the race had been. Instead he blamed a national trend.

Mr. MICHAEL BLOOMBERG (Mayor, New York): Tonight, throughout the nation, the public has been very clear. And some incumbents have learned that they are tired of politics as usual. They´┐Ż

SMITH: Bloomberg, however, was practicing politics as unusual. Never before has a man spent so much of his own money for so little effect. He got 51 percent of the vote against Democrat Bill Thompson, roughly the same numbers he was polling at back in the spring - before he spent a $100 million. That works out by the way to about $180 per vote. Thompson spent about 20 bucks per vote. Baruch College Professor Doug Muzzio says it wasn't just the money people started to resent. Everyone knows Bloomberg's a billionaire. It was how he spent it.

Professor DOUG MUZZIO (Political Science, Baruch College, New York): You got 17, you know, beautifully detailed flyers in your mailbox. You got robo-calls from everybody. You saw his face more, you know, on the World Series than Derek Jeter. It was just overload and overkill.

SMITH: Bloomberg usually responds to this accusation by saying he needed to spend every dime. He's an independent in a city dominated by Democrats. It was an anti-incumbent year. People were still ticked off that Bloomberg got around the city's term-limits law. For all these reasons, there was always a feeling to how high Bloomberg's vote could go. That's why much of the money was spent on tearing his opponent down.

Prof. MUZZIO: This was a New York City street fight and the law of the street is you get the other guy down and you beat him until he can't get up.

SMITH: We can't know how much of a backlash there was against Bloomberg for this kind of spending, but we do know that turnout overall was low. Meanwhile, there was so much money on the Bloomberg campaign that it was turning into a laboratory for cutting edge campaign research on micro-targeting. For instance, I got a campaign flyer about transportation in my mailbox that seemed to know that I take the F train every morning, along with Bloomberg's pitch to improve service on that train. But once again, after all this innovation, Bloomberg's support in the polls never went above 53 percent. I asked Professor Muzzio: Will political consultants finally take this as a lesson that they should spend less, live within their means?

Prof. MUZZIO: Never. You never can spend too much. That certainly is the perceived reality, even this case notwithstanding.

SMITH: And of course we have the additional problem which now there are hundreds of political consultants who are used to spending that amount of money unleashed upon the world.

Prof. MUZZIO: That's exactly right. And this is a dangerous breed of people.

SMITH: Because at the end of the day, the Bloomberg campaign won't be remembered for all its money, it will be remembered for squeaking out a win.

Robert Smith, NPR News, New York.

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