City Lit: Race to the Bottom

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Everyone has a theory about why an election was lost, or won–particularly those who spend every waking moment fighting for a candidate. Should X have spent more money on television ads, or more time on the streets? This recent attempt to explain who wins and who becomes yesterday’s news comes from Evan Mandery, who was research director for Ruth Messinger’s disastrous 1997 mayoral campaign.

Mandery’s book, written as a diary, will stir indelible memories of the campaign. Remember Rudy in drag? Remember Ruth on a bicycle?

Mandery is an entertaining critic of Rudy Giuliani’s grammar and braggadocio, and he rightly criticizes the press for paying more attention to campaign strategies than platforms.

Besides being a political junkie’s trip down memory lane, this book could have served as a well-timed playbook for the Hillary camp: a map of the pitfalls that befell one liberal female candidate that might help the next one avoid them. But Mandery would have far more to tell us if he had a little more experience and political smarts.

Messinger’s campaign was Mandery’s first–he admits he did it because he was bored with being a lawyer and that before the campaign he read the sports section of the newspaper first.

The account is only further undone by Mandery’s uncritical acceptance of campaign strategies taught him by Messinger’s feisty campaign consultant, Jim Andrews. On strategy, Messinger’s campaign staff was sharply divided, and Mandery’s loyalties are clearly with the man who hired him, not the woman running for mayor.

As Mandery puts it plainly, “Ruth and her staff from the borough president’s office want to run an aggressive field campaign. Jim wants to save the money for television ads.” According to Mandery, Andrews argued that reaching out to receptive communities is old-fashioned and ineffective. What matters in a modern campaign, he believed, was having a tight, poll-tested message, one that was clearly and relentlessly spread through TV ads.

In his account, Mandery is troubled that no one–that is, no one besides him and Andrews–seems to realize this. The press sees field events as signs of a campaign’s aggressiveness. Giuliani attacks Ruth when she misses a parade. The campaign hears discontented rumblings from borough party organizations that expect the usual cash to fuel the get-out-the-vote machine. Even Ruth herself says she thinks it’s important not to forget her neighborhood core supporters.

Mandery ignores the possibility that all those people believe field campaigning is important because it is important. Research shows that those contacted by campaigns and parties are more likely to vote, and that the switch to TV campaigning has played a part in depressing turnout. Particularly in cities like New York, campaigning is still done largely on the retail level. Marching in a parade might not present the campaign’s message as clearly as a TV ad, but it does send an even more important message: I care about your neighborhood, your ethnic group, your piece of the New York mosaic.

So why did Messinger hire Andrews and media consultant Mandy Grunwald if they didn’t share her view that it was important to reach out to her liberal supporters? It’s too bad Mandery didn’t take advantage of his position in her campaign to ask Ruth himself. Indeed, of the four major candidates for mayor that year, Messinger is the one we get the least sense of as a person.

To make matters worse, the message doctors were also convinced by their polls that the liberal Messinger needed to shift to the center. But in this ill-conceived move, the Messinger campaign stumbled. Advisors developed a proposal to cut the city’s budget by privatizing services and making city employees work longer hours, and they convinced Messinger to avoid criticizing police use of hollow-point bullets. In doing so, they made her a less confident and less believable candidate, who appeared to voters to be reinventing herself in order to win.

Why else didn’t Ruth win? Mandery offers mea culpas: “We did a poor job at building coalitions. Our advance work was not what it should have been. Putting Ruth on a bicycle was an error. But all of those things would have mattered not a whit, I think, if we had put $2 million on television before August.” But the campaign never had enough money to deliver that media effort; in the end, Messinger raised $4.1 million to Giuliani’s $9.9 million.

Messinger lost because Giuliani was hard to beat in 1997. But investing in grassroots efforts might have added an important element to the “message” of the Messinger campaign: “Rudy Giuliani doesn’t care about the average New Yorker–and I do.” By minimizing its community presence, Messinger’s campaign missed a crucial opportunity to get that message across.

Mandery later said he had a hard time convincing publishers that his book was “a book about campaigns that is incidentally about the 1997 mayoral campaign.” It’s hard to sympathize–this really is a book about the 1997 mayoral campaign, with a few scattered thoughts about campaigns in general. And not such insightful ones, at that.

Margaret Groarke is an assistant professor of government at Manhattan College.