Joe Lhota is going to lose his bid for Mayor of New York, in one of the biggest defeats for a Republican in New York City since Roy Goodman received only 4 percent of the vote in 1977. Lhota’s candidacy is suffering with the problem of a very smart man with very bad handlers and seemingly no message at all.
Messaging is everything in politics, as this writer’s mother told him all throughout school, “you get in trouble not for what you say but how you say it.”
For the last twenty years Republicans had a message to run on: vote for us and we won’t let the City go back to the time of David Dinkins, when crime was rampant and quality of life was poor. And so Republican mayors turned New York City into the safest big city in America. Times Square, once overrun with prostitution and crime, is now a playground for tourists and the Walt Disney Company.
Even neighborhoods that were once considered extremely undesirable are now too expensive for almost everyone to live in. The Lower East Side’s Alphabet City, the location for the musical “Rent,” was once a drug-infested bohemian playground for struggling artists. It’s now a chic enclave for hipsters and millennials who work in the financial industry. Even Redhook, which was notorious during the early 90’s for crime has become a trendy neighborhood, covered with postindustrial buildings, cobblestone streets, and community gardens.
Joe Lhota’s problem is that for many voters, this is the only New York they have ever known. According to a New York Times poll, nearly one in five New Yorkers don’t have an opinion of David Dinkins, including over 40 percent of voters under the age of 45. To run against the decay of the 1970’s and 1980’s requires a population that remembers 80s New York, which to many voters only exists in Martin Scorsese movies.
Lhota also suffers from an image problem. Voters don’t know Lhota like they know Democrat Bill DeBlasio. DeBlasio’s son Dante is nearly as popular as his father is, meanwhile most New Yorkers probably couldn’t tell you if Joe Lhota is even married, if he has children, or what borough he comes from. There was never a moment where the campaign tried to sell Lhota as a package, as a product of New York, or as much of anything besides Rudy Giuliani 2.0.
On the issues New Yorkers also don’t know what to make of Lhota. His book on policy issues was released on October 10th, less than a month before Election Day. His 33-point plan to power up the economy was released on its own more than two weeks after his victory on primary day, on a Friday without advanced notice. Media relations-wise, his campaign has been completely incompetent.
His plan was too complex and didn’t come out with any concise message for voters to hold on to. For one thing, 33 points is far too many. Voters can’t remember that much information; they like simple thoughts with clear messaging like Hope and Change, “The Rent is Too Damn High,” and “Head On, Apply Directly to the Forehead.”
Both his campaign manager and political director have never managed a citywide race. Other consultants on his campaign, some of whom I know, are only in it for the paycheck.
In addition to the tangle of messaging issues, there has been nearly no coalition building on his behalf. Not even with some of the Democratic mayoral candidates who lost in the primary in part by DeBlasio’s negative campaigning. In a city that is 6-to-1 Democrat to Republican, that’s a big mistake.
If you’re going down, you should go down swinging, and yet Lhota seems to be pulling his punches. In the last mayor debate when asked the question if DeBlasio would make the city of New York less safe, Joe Lhota couldn’t definitively say yes. DeBlasio meanwhile spent his entire time during the debate calling the pro-gun control, pro-gay marriage, and pro-choice Lhota a “tea party member.” When you’re forty points behind in the polls, you don’t pinch, you punch.
Lhota’s campaign has been a case study in how not to run a race and DeBlasio’s win will not be so much a wave election as a candidate running unopposed. And New York City will move out of the twenty years of safe streets and economic growth under the Giuliani and Bloomberg administrations into a very uncertain future.