The Electoral Calculus of the Comptroller Race

It was funny in last night’s debate when Scott Stringer said that he represented a “new generation” of leadership, and Eliot Spitzer interrupted him to ask, “Scott, how old are you?  Aren’t we the same age?”

In fact, Spitzer is a little younger than Stringer.  But the point was absurd to begin with.  Spitzer outclasses Stringer in virtually every way: he is taller, more virile, speaks better (Stringer’s nasal stammer makes him sound like Elmer Fudd), is richer, and comes from a higher social class. He has better grammar: did anyone else catch Stringer twice saying "between you and I?" 

Scott Stringer, from Washington Heights, grew up in the civil servant stratum of the Jewish middle class and used his family’s political connections (his mother was an elected official and a cousin of Bella Abzug) to scrape ahead, graduating from John Jay, then putting in years of toil as a legislative slave to Jerry Nadler.

Eliot Spitzer, on the other hand, was a child of immense privilege, growing up in Riverdale, a few miles north of Stringer geographically but galaxies away in terms of expectation.  He went to elite Horace Mann (presumably avoiding being sexually abused—his time there overlaps with the apparent madhouse of male-on-male rape that has been exposed in the last two years) and then Princeton and Harvard.  

So it is ironic that Scott Stringer is running as the candidate of Manhattan and the political establishment versus Spitzer as the champion of the middle class and the outer boroughs.  And try as he may to shake off that distinction, Stringer will be hampered by it, and there are solid electoral reasons why that is so.

Eliot Spitzer has won three state-wide races: two for Attorney General and one for Governor.  But forget about the rest of the state and focus on New York City: Spitzer has already won, by terrific margins, three city-wide races.  In each of these races Spitzer received, at or near the top of the ballot, about 750,000 votes not including voters in Manhattan. 

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that half of these voters now despise Eliot Spitzer: they agree completely with Scott Stringer and the NOW/NARAL/Wall Street faction that Spitzer is a beast who cannot be trusted.  And let's assume half of the voters will not turn out for a primary election.  That leaves a quarter of Spitzer’s previous outer-borough voters now voting for him for Comptroller.  That drastic arithmetic still leaves him with 187,000 votes, or 50% of the total vote for Comptroller in 2009.  And doesn’t include Manhattan, where he is actually polling well.

On the other hand, look at Scott Stringer.  He has never won a single vote from anyone off the island of Manhattan.  When he goes to Jackson Heights or Boro Park, people hear him introduced as the Manhattan Borough President, and which illustrious elected officials do they automatically think of?  Helen Marshall and Marty Markowitz: two superannuated and largely ceremonial figures, party faithfuls, hacks.  

Is being from Manhattan a great benefit to a candidate seeking citywide office?  Let’s look at some other post-Beep candidacies of former Manhattan Borough Presidents. 

Immediately preceding Scott Stringer as MBP was C. Virginia Fields.  Fields was term limited in 2005 and decided to run for Mayor.  Her campaign was a disaster, and she finished third in the primary voting in every borough, garnering only 16% of the Manhattan vote. 

Before C. Virginia Fields Manhattan had Ruth Messinger.  In 1997 Messinger ran for Mayor and was almost forced into a primary runoff by Al Sharpton, but squeaked by with 40%.  Then in the general election she lost every borough except the Bronx to Giuliani.  She lost Manhattan by 3 points.

Before Ruth Messinger, David Dinkins was Manhattan Beep.  True, he became Mayor.  However, he may be the example that proves the rule, given that he is widely considered to have been a horrible mayor…fairly or unfairly.

My wider point is that being Manhattan BP isn’t like being Mayor of Manhattan City.  It probably sounds very impressive to foreign visitors, but local voters know exactly what the office is and what it isn’t.  If you think Brooklyn and Queens primary voters are going to look at Scott Stringer’s record and stature as the boy king of Manhattan and rush to vote for him, then I have a bridge you might be interested in leasing—the Kosciuszko.